Do election workers need extra protection in today’s political climate?

May 20, 2023, 7:15 PM

A worker carries a bin of ballots to a rolling cart as election workers process ballots at the Salt...

A worker carries a bin of ballots to a rolling cart as election workers process ballots at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty new county clerks have taken office in Utah since 2020, and three counties have seen multiple new clerks during those years, meaning 17 of the state’s 29 counties have clerks with three or fewer years of experience.

Although the causes of the recent turnover are varied — including the retirement of longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen — some officials have pointed to increased tensions around election administrations as part of the problem.

That’s why state lawmakers have begun to explore additional legal protection for election workers, possibly including enhanced penalties for those who make threats against election workers.

Ryan Cowley, the state’s elections director, told the Legislature’s Government Operations Interim Committee this week that the median experience level of current county clerks is just two years.

“The reason I wanted to show this is to kind of highlight a problem. Now, there’s not one reason why we’re losing all of our county clerks; there’s a combination of things. Part of it is in the environment that we’re in,” he said.

While there haven’t been “actionable threats” against election workers, Cowley said there have been some close calls, including some employees being followed home.

States pass new laws to protect election workers amid ongoing threats

Thomas Vaughn, managing associate general counsel, told lawmakers that similar special protections have been extended to other groups of workers, like health care workers or law enforcement. He said Utah law protects all Utahns from threats, but generally only when there are specific threats that pose an “imminent harm” to those targeted.

Several states, including New Mexico, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, have recently passed laws to protect workers from harassment or threats, according to the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, said he favors keeping criminal penalties consistent for similar crimes.

“We keep picking out certain groups to protect, and I think everyone needs protection,” he said. “So, we ought to say, ‘What is in common with all of these people?’ and … make it consistent.”

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who is the Senate chairman of the committee, agreed with wanting to find consistency, but said “the reason that we are having this conversation is because there is a new and different threat for these specific people who are doing a core government function.”

Thatcher recommended the subject be referred to the Sentencing Commission and/or the Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force, to allow experts to advise lawmakers on future legislation.

The committee didn’t hear any specific policy proposal on Wednesday, but the discussions could help shape the path the Legislature ultimately takes on election worker security during next year’s general session.

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Do election workers need extra protection in today’s political climate?