AUGUSTA — Municipal clerks who oversee local, state and federal elections asked Maine lawmakers Wednesday to make it a felony to harass, threaten or intimidate election workers.

But the measure is being opposed by some who say incarcerating more people is not the answer.

Clerks said they have noticed higher tensions and more confrontations with angry and misinformed voters, and the situation is making it harder to find poll workers.

State officials said they have received two reports of threats against election workers since the 2020 presidential election, which some Republicans have falsely claimed was rigged and rife with voter fraud.

Details about specific incidents were not made available, but Waterville City Clerk Patti Dubois said election workers are experiencing increased hostility and threats, both in person at polling locations and online through social media.

“Being on the receiving end of a voter’s profanity-laced rants (is) commonplace now,” Dubois said. “At least one clerk in Maine has received a credible death threat from a voter. Technology has made it unbelievably easy for misinformed citizens to threaten election officials. Email, voicemail and social media are platforms easily used that allow a degree of anonymity. We cannot become desensitized to this disturbing trend.”

Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, sponsored a bill that would allow Class C charges to be filed against anyone who “intentionally interferes by force, violence or intimidation or by any physical act with any public official who is in fact performing or the person believes is performing an official function relating to a federal, state or municipal election.” If passed into law, the crime would be punishable by up to 5 years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Most of those offenses are currently considered Class D misdemeanors, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

It was one of several bills presented to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday, including two bills aimed at protecting election integrity.

A separate bill, sponsored by Rep. Theresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, would strengthen the chain of custody of ballots to insulate Maine elections from dubious third-party partisan audits that have been conducted in states such as Colorado and Arizona. The bill would ensure that municipal clerks maintain custody and control over ballots and the bill would explicitly prohibit clerks from transferring possession, custody or control of a voting machine or device to a third party without authorization from the Secretary of State.

White’s anti-harassment bill is being supported by municipal clerks and Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, but opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Bellows, a former ALCU of Maine director, said reclassifying threats and intimidation against election officials, many of whom are volunteers, as a felony would be consistent with other election-related crimes, such as voter fraud. It also would allow the state attorney general to investigate and prosecute allegations of intimidation, rather than leaving prosecution up to individual district attorneys, she said.

“Previous legislatures have recognized that attacks on our elections are attacks on democracy and demand serious consequences,” Bellows said, noting that municipal workers face a higher risk since their personal information is readily available. “We support this legislation because it takes a statewide approach to a growing national problem.”

Megan Sway, policy director of the ACLU of Maine, said that current laws prohibiting obstruction of government administration, criminal threatening, terrorizing and stalking are sufficient to prosecute harassment of election workers. There is no evidence that elevating harassment and intimidation of election workers to a felony would prevent such acts from occurring, she said.

ACLU: CURRENT LAWS SUFFICIENT

Sway said that Maine and the U.S. already imprison too many people, especially people of color, who make up a disproportionate share of prisoners. She said public officials should look for other ways to ensure election worker safety without turning to the criminal justice system.

“I think there are ways of doing that without creating new felonies,” Sway said in response to questions from Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, who is skeptical of the bill. “I think there are ways for elected officials to stand behind election workers and to condemn this kind of behavior and to take a stronger stance publicly to defend people.”

Corey doesn’t believe the bill would be effective, since people don’t usually look up potential penalties before committing crimes. “It’s very unlikely that raising the class of crime would actually dissuade somebody from committing the crime,” Corey said. 

Threats to election workers have been on the rise since the contentious 2020 presidential election.

A survey of election officials conducted last summer by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election workers feels unsafe on their jobs and nearly one in five listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice created a task force to address the rising number of threats against election workers. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco called on federal prosecutors to vigorously investigate any allegations against election workers. Monaco informed prosecutors that the DOJ had established a special task force to address the threat to election workers.

“In recent months, there has been a significant increase in the threat of violence against Americans who administer free and fair elections throughout our nation,” Monaco wrote in a letter to prosecutors. “A threat to any election official, worker or volunteer is, at bottom, a threat to democracy.

No official details were available about specific incidents of intimidation in Maine.

CLERKS CONCERNED FOR SAFETY

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maine said he could neither confirm nor deny whether the office was investigating any threats against election workers.

Bellows said in written testimony that her office received at least two reports of threats against election workers. But her office declined to provide additional information, because the clerks are concerned about their safety and want to remain anonymous.

Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin, who is a legislative policy member of the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association, told the Press Herald that one clerk was threatened indirectly, albeit by name. Goodwin said the person who made the threat was charged with terrorizing rather than criminal threatening, since the threat was made on someone else’s page.

She declined to provide additional details, such as where in Maine it occurred or who filed the charges, because the clerk wanted to remain anonymous.

Goodwin said the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association believes the bill will make a difference.

“We are asking for your support to ensure that members of the public who choose to intimidate or threaten any election officials are held accountable to the highest degree possible,” she said. “These crimes must be categorized as more severe than a Class D crime in order to better protect our election officials, but also to discourage this unscrupulous behavior.”


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