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Election deniers looking to work at polling places, new report warns

  • Robby Brod
Election workers check ballots one last time before sending them to be scanned and counted in Pennsylvania in November 2020.

 Emma Lee / WHYY

Election workers check ballots one last time before sending them to be scanned and counted in Pennsylvania in November 2020.

Before the 2020 election, election officials rarely worried about the partisanship of their poll workers.

But a new report from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a non-partisan national security advocacy group, warns that election deniers are seeking employment at polling precincts – and they could influence the 2022 midterm elections.

“Poll workers are the backbone of American democracy. They played a critical role in the success of the 2020 election. They, frankly, continue to play success in 2022,” said the report’s author David Levine. “But… you don’t need too many rogue poll workers to cause a problem.”

He cited a figure that showed despite President Joe Biden’s eight-million vote victory margin, the 2020 election could have been overturned by about 45,000 voters across three states – including Pennsylvania.

The report states the election process could be harmed in a number of ways. Outside of changing results, “rogue poll workers” have previously disseminated incorrect election information that may disenfranchise some voters, tampered with voting equipment to create confusion, or dampened voter turnout by creating long lines at polling places.

Levine’s report details the threats posed to polling precincts by election deniers, and explains how election officials can prevent, detect, and recover from them.

While most Americans believe the 2020 election happened fairly, PolitiFact reports that about 70% of Republicans nationwide falsely suspect it happened fraudulently.

A Franklin & Marshall poll showed 41% of Pennsylvanians believe their precinct “failed to count the state’s vote correctly in the 2020 Presidential election.”

Despite former President Donald Trump continuing to campaign on election fraud disinformation, none was detected that would have altered 2020 election outcomes anywhere in the country.

To combat election disinformation, Levine said diligently vetting poll workers with a questionnaire is one of the easiest ways to secure elections from interference.

“It’s important to be mindful of asking questions that get at what is motivating somebody to serve, which, depending on the answers provided, could lead someone to at least develop safeguards to ensure that this person isn’t going to be a substantial issue on Election Day,” Levine said.

The report suggests election officials consult a potential hire’s employment records and social media accounts, to show whether they’re involved with a candidate, and/or unable to be impartial.

He said Pennsylvanians should pay special attention to elected officials who won their seats by seeking “votes from people who may have thought that the 2020 election was illegitimate as part of those efforts.”

But he also said voters should remain civil while seeking to hold officials accountable.

“Pennsylvania was ground zero for a lot of threats directed at election officials,” he said, adding that his report suggests a more robust tip line than Pa. already has, with a specific extension for “election subversion activities.”

Pa.’s Department of State suggests that people report voting issues either with the hotline, or by contacting the judge of elections at their polling place and their county election office by using the online complaint form.

For the most part, poll workers in Pa. can only work in counties where they’re registered to vote. Government officials/employees are mostly barred from serving as poll workers – other than notaries public, district judges, and Pa. National Guard members.

Poll workers are trained by their local county election boards.

Levine suggests election officials have a plan already in place if the report’s suggestions still don’t stop interference efforts. 

“A rapid, rehearsed, and scripted response will help ensure that potentially disruptive workers are replaced in a timely manner,” he wrote, “with negligible impact on the voting process.”

Clearly communicating the corrective steps to the public is the next key step.

Levine said the public’s confidence in elections can be damaged by reports of poll workers misusing election equipment or compromising voters’ sensitive information.

He said after fully investigating the issue, officials “should publicly explain the steps they have taken to investigate the allegations” and explain whether the accusations are true.

Ultimately, Levine believes elections will be secure this election cycle, due to the work of poll workers nationwide with years of invaluable experience.

But with those numbers dwindling, including in Pennsylvania, Levine said it’s more important than ever for precincts to retain experienced poll workers.

The midterm elections are on Nov. 8th.

The full report can be found here.

Information about becoming a poll worker in Pa. can be found here.

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