As election workers face threats, Ohio lawmakers introduce bill to protect them

Poll workers checking voters in Thursday for Ohio's Nov. election .png
Posted at 5:45 PM, Oct 19, 2023

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Ohio has come together to support their election officials, aiming to help shield them from increasing threats.

Getting involved in working elections means being a part of the democratic process. But it's definitely different times than a few years ago, said Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Director Tony Perlatti.

"This is a serious business," Perlatti said. "It's a business that's under attack."

There has been a sharp increase in hostility and accusations of fraud, leading to election officials leaving the industry.

"They didn't want to stick around any longer because of the way the environment has changed," he added. "We all have targets on our back."

Nearly half of election officials and poll workers fear for their and their colleagues' safety, and about 75% feel threats have increased since 2020, according to a report from the Brennan Center.

Former President Donald Trump has continuously made false claims for years about election fraud. While doing so, his rhetoric targeted election workers, and many of his supporters have falsely accused Perlatti and other officials of having "rigged systems," not doing their jobs and being susceptible to fraud.

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As of the end of August, Biden's Election Threats Task Force charged a dozen people with crimes against election officials. None are from Ohio.

Cuyahoga County hasn't faced the worst of the harassment around the state, Perlatti said, but the never-ending criticism and records requests seeking to find "fraud" is time-consuming and frustrating to deal with.

Now, state Sen. Bill DeMora (D-Columbus) has introduced legislation that he says will help keep these workers safe.

"People are getting threatened, and we haven't had any deaths or anything serious yet, but people doing elections are worried about their job," DeMora said. "We need to give them some sort of protection."

He introduced Senate Bill 173 with state Sen. Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green). It prevents an election worker's residential and family information from being included in public records.

"I'm worried about the sanctity of our elections and these people trying to do their jobs," DeMora added.

Current state law has exemptions to public record laws for "public service workers," which includes police officers, prosecutors, judges, firefighters and specific mental health employees. The bill would simply add "election official" to the list.

This bill would not apply to the secretary of state position, DeMora said.

"Democrats and Republicans on the election boards, they are all there to do the same thing — to have a free and safe and fair election," DeMora added. "If we can stop something bad happening to them before it happens, I'm up for it."

State Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville) is familiar with threats. He has had people call his office and say they hope he gets shot, he said.

"Making decisions that might make somebody in the public unhappy is part of being in public office," Stewart told News 5.

Anyone getting anything accomplished in public service is gonna be criticized, from one direction or another, he added.

"We're talking about whether we're going to make these huge exemptions to public records law, [but we] probably need to focus more on threats and less on just 'I got an angry phone call from somebody who doesn't like how I'm doing my job,'" he said.

Removing tens of thousands of people from being discoverable could have wide financial and business impacts.

"It's a huge sort-of administrative lift to keep track of every single employee who might qualify for the exemption, redact their information," Stewart said. "Let's err on the side of staying where we've been."

Lawmakers' addresses aren't exempt, so why should election workers be, he continued, and asked who would be next to ask for their information to be redacted since any industry can face threats.

"If you're dealing with 'Bob and Betty Buckeye' calling about their voter registration, we're gonna understand that there are some rules of the road here that you just kinda have to accept getting these jobs," he said.

Ohio cares about having freedom of information, he added, and that shouldn't be taken away.

Election workers are different than lawmakers since they aren't elected and are just trying to help the state, DeMora said, with some choice words for Stewart.

"He and I ran for office," DeMora said. "Our addresses were public because we're required to put our address on our petitioners to run for office."

They chose to be public-facing, the election workers did not, he added.

"We just want to be left alone and do our stuff and promote democracy because we love what we do," Perlatti said.

This bipartisan bill likely won't be debated until after the Nov. 7 election. Early voting is currently taking place, with a focus on Issue 1, the abortion access amendment, and Issue 2, the recreational marijuana statute.

RELATED: What is Ohio Issue 1? We explain the abortion amendment

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.