That attitude has seeped into new voting laws and bills put forward by Republican-controlled legislatures across the country. More than two dozen bills in nine states, either still making their way through legislatures or signed into law, have sought to establish a rash of harsh new penalties, elevated criminal classifications and five-figure fines for state and local election officials who are found to have made mistakes, errors, oversteps and other violations of election code, according to a review of voting legislation by The New York Times.
The infractions that could draw more severe punishment run the gamut from seemingly minor lapses in attention or innocent mistakes to more clearly willful actions in defiance of regulations. In Texas, taking any action that “would make observation not reasonably effective” for a poll watcher would carry new penalties. In Florida, failing to have an election worker continuously supervise a drop box would result in major fines. Willfully flouting new laws, like ones in states including Iowa and Texas that ban sending absentee ballots to voters who have not requested them, would also lead to tougher penalties.
“The default assumption that county election officials are bad actors is problematic,” said Chris Davis, the county election administrator in Williamson County, Texas, north of Austin. “There’s so many moving parts and things happening at a given polling place, and innocent mistakes, though infrequent, can happen. And to assign criminal liability or civil liability to some of these things is problematic. It’s a big-time issue that we have.”
“These poll workers don’t ever, in our experience, intend to count invalid votes, or let somebody who’s not eligible vote, or prevent somebody who’s eligible from voting,” said Mr. Davis, whose role is nonpartisan. “Yet we’re seeing that as a baseline, kind of a fundamental principle in some of the bills that are being drafted. And I don’t know where it’s coming from, because it’s not based on reality.”
With the threat of felonies, jail time and fines as large as $25,000 hanging over their heads, election officials, as well as voting rights groups, are growing increasingly worried that the new penalties will not only limit the work of election administrators but also have a chilling effect on their willingness to do the job.