Opinion | 2022 midterm elections are stress test of the system

Opinion | 2022 midterm elections are stress test of the system

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This year’s midterms are not shaping up to be normal elections. In an environment in which one party is gripped by skepticism and denialism about foundational democratic processes, new avenues are opening for voter intimidation and election interference — a stress test that could be a small taste of what is ahead in the 2024 presidential election.

Early signs of danger are popping up across the map at multiple levels in the election system.

Threats against voters: In Arizona, Maricopa County officials say men wearing tactical gear and masks have been observing a ballot drop box in Mesa, a Phoenix suburb. Voters have complained about these menacing figures to the Arizona secretary of state’s office, one alleging that the watchers photographed them and accused them of being what some on the right refer to as “mules” — that is, people who illicitly collect and deposit ballots in drop boxes.

This is all, sadly, unsurprising. After Joe Biden narrowly won Arizona in 2020, Donald Trump and his allies refused to accept defeat. Arizona’s Republican-led state Senate conducted a partisan “audit” of the results that found nothing of concern — but still fueled unfounded doubts. This year, at the top of the ticket, Republicans have nominated gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, one of the country’s most vocal election deniers.

A Reuters-Ipsos poll released Wednesday showed that 43 percent of Americans are “concerned about threats of violence or voter intimidation while voting in person,” and two-thirds worry that “extremists will commit acts of violence after the election.”

Undermining local election officials: Houston-area officials last week requested federal election monitors from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in response to the news that their own state government plans to send a squadron of election monitors there. This is the latest episode in a long-running war between Harris County officials and state-level Republicans, who previously banned 24-hour and drive-through voting, measures that had made it easier for Houstonians to vote in 2020. There is no credible evidence that substantial election fraud occurred as a result, but a toxic The atmosphere of mutual mistrust remains — something that is not unique to Texas and its most populous county this year.

Conspiracy-minded partisans watching — and staffing — the polls: Partisan and nonpartisan observers have been on the Election Day scene for decades. But in the current environment — in which the majority of Republicans say they believe Mr. Trump’s lie that he was denied a victory in 2020 because of massive fraud — having an army of monitors is a recipe for confrontation and intimidation at the polls. As The Post has reported, the Republican National Committee and its allies have staged thousands of training sessions around the country on how to observe and lodge complaints about voting. Meanwhile, nearly a dozen states , from Texas to Montana and Utah to Florida, have passed laws giving election observers far more autonomy within polling places.

Americans might even have to worry that the Election Day worker helping at the local polling place, once a symbol of civic spirit, might be a partisan agent seeking to claim nonexistent fraud or engage in other misconduct. Last month, a first-time Republican poll worker in Michigan was charged with two felonies after he inserted a personal flash drive into an electronic poll book that contained sensitive voter information. Kent County, Mich., officials had to conduct a vote audit and decommission equipment.

What to do to protect the system: In this country’s decentralized voting system, state and local officials are the first line of defense. States such as Colorado, Maine and Oregon have recently passed laws specifically aimed at protecting election workers, but most states have not. So the burden is on local officials such as Sherry L. Poland, the election director in Hamilton County, Ohio, who said her polling places will take security measures in the coming midterm election vote that they usually reserve for presidential election years. State and local police, meanwhile, should enforce aggressive voting-security laws already on the books, such as Arizona’s banning armed people from being within 75 feet of a polling place.

There are also some simple things states can do to prevent partisan activists from infiltrating poll-worker ranks. An analysis released last week by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that 34 states require all temporary election workers to be trained, a critical part of ensuring they know their responsibilities and weeding out those who are unwilling to perform them. Forty states demand that polling workers take oaths of office. And 47 of them try to achieve partisan parity in hiring election workers. Though doing so is not always possible, given the lopsided partisan makeup of some communities, striving to achieve balance projects fairness and builds checks into the system.

Yet poll-worker oaths, training and partisan balance will do only so much. States also need strong and clear dismissal policies enabling supervisors to remove poll workers who break the rules, threaten voting integrity or otherwise cause a scene. Similarly, supervisors should have wide discretion to remove disruptive partisan election observers.

What to do to encourage more voting: Since the 2020 election, Republican legislatures have passed a wave of restrictive voting laws — 42 of them in 21 states, with most already in place for the midterm elections, according to the latest tally by the Brennan Center for Justice. In general, it is harder to cast ballots in red states than in blue ones, a recent analysis in the Election Law Journal showed.

That is why it is imperative for the federal government to act. Congress should boost federal penalties for threatening election workers. It should also reempower the Justice Department, which has seen its tools under the Voting Rights Act stripped away by the Supreme Court. Most urgent right now, in the absence of new legislation, is for the department to send monitors to places where intimidation is likely to happen — and to investigate and prosecute it where it occurs.

Finally, Congress should send a lot more money to states to secure and improve voting. Federal funds could finance election technology upgrades, poll-worker training (the quality of which varies widely from place to place) and voter education. Ms. Poland, the Ohio county election director, said her office conducts “behind the ballot tours,” showing those concerned about voting integrity their facilities, methods and safeguards.

Yet even if local, state and federal officials fail to rise to the moment, voters can still have the final say. Americans of goodwill and common sense should refuse to allow threats, intimidation, antidemocratic lies, malign poll workers or vigilantes in body armor to prevent them from casting ballots. And when they cast their ballots, it should be for candidates who condemn these tactics — not those who encourage and profit from them.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, DC affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E . Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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Jorge Oliveira

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