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Republican legislators curb authority of county, state election officials

Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline.org on

Published in Political News

The threat of hefty fines has created hostility between many county officials and the state legislature and secretary of state’s office, he said. Miller sees this as another attack in a nationwide assault on election administration since November.

“It looks very unfair, inappropriate, not based in reality,” he said. “Now, it’s law and we have to deal with it.”

Since Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Iowa legislation in March, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate has cited county auditors for more than 10 technical infractions, but none came with a fine. A spokesperson said Pate’s office has provided election officials with resources and information to comply with the measure and has a positive working relationship with a vast majority of the state’s 99 county auditors.

“All Iowans are expected to follow the law, and local election officials are no different,” said Kevin Hall, communications director for the secretary of state’s office, in an email. Republican state Sen. Roby Smith, who chairs the committee that drafted the legislation, declined to comment.

A similar proposal in Texas would make it a felony for county election officials to mail out unsolicited absentee ballot applications. In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed into law a measure that would fine county supervisors up to $25,000 for leaving ballot drop boxes unattended.

In Arkansas, Republican lawmakers passed a law that allows the state legislature to investigate county election offices for suspected election fraud. This could lead to the decertification of county election officials, a takeover of county election offices by the State Board of Elections and a fine of up to $1,000 against county officials.

“We’re seeing a trend where highly partisan state legislators are seeking to disrupt the way that elections have been run in this country for decades,” said Jessica Marsden, an attorney for Protect Democracy. “We don’t think you can run a fair election in those circumstances. It’s an incredibly serious threat to our democracy.”

These new measures come as Republican legislators in at least 18 states have enacted 30 new laws that curb early and mail-in voting, add new voter ID requirements and limit the use of ballot drop boxes, according to a July count by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

“You can’t ignore the context in which these bills are being passed,” said Derek Tisler, a democracy fellow at the Brennan Center. “This is a bad-faith pressure campaign. I don’t think anyone disagrees that election officials should follow the law, but these overly punitive laws may chill election officials from performing their jobs.”

 

Local election officials have been the subject of immense criticism and pressure in recent years, said John Ackerman, Republican clerk for Tazewell County in central Illinois. From the fallout of Russian hacking attempts during the 2016 presidential election to false accusations that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, Ackerman said he must wade through condemnation and misinformation to fulfill his responsibilities.

“It’s disheartening,” he said. “I just have to do my job the best I can and communicate with the public.”

The Brennan Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C.-based think tank, last month released a report that found 1 in 3 election officials feel unsafe because of their jobs. The U.S. Department of Justice last month launched a task force centered on threats to election officials.

“Election officials at both the state and local levels are exhausted,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the elections program at Democracy Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that advocates for election officials and democratic reforms. “They’re feeling underappreciated, they’re feeling attacked, they’re feeling under-resourced and it hasn’t stopped since last year.

“Really, at this moment, we should be celebrating local election officials for a job well done in the face of adversity, and instead we’re criminalizing them and placing new restrictions on what they can and cannot do.”

While Travis Weipert, Democratic auditor for Johnson County, Iowa, loves his job, the harassment, legislative threats and broad misinformation have taken a toll. He and his wife have discussed him returning to the private sector, but he wants to stay in his role for now.

“The attacks on us are extremely disappointing,” he said. “I’m totally concerned.”

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