Election officials are growing concerned about a new danger in November: that groups looking to undermine election results will try to install their supporters as poll workers.
The frontline election workers do everything from checking people in at voting locations to helping process mail ballots — in other words, they are the face of American elections for most voters. And now, some prominent incidents involving poll workers have worried election officials that a bigger wave of trouble could be on the horizon.
Michigan, in particular, has been a hotspot: a far-right candidate for governor, who lost the GOP primary, encouraged poll workers to unplug election equipment if they believed something was wrong. A Michigan county GOP organization encouraged poll workers to ignore rules barring cell phones in polling places and vote-counting centers.
And just last week, the clerk of Kent County, Mich., announced that a witness allegedly saw a poll worker inserting a USB drive into an electronic poll book — the list of registered voters that shows who has cast ballots — during the August primary, leading to a pair of felony charges. The Kent County Clerk’s office declined to comment beyond a statement issued by Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons last week, stressing that the “incident had no impact on the election,” and that that specific poll book would no longer be used in future elections.
“It is kind of troubling to see, in the wake of 2020, this new element of election workers who are there to more police things …than they are to just perform the function of being an election worker and facilitating the democratic process in communities,” said Justin Roebuck, the clerk of Ottawa County, Mich. and the chair of the Michigan Council of Election Officials.
Roebuck is also a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Task Force on Elections, which is working on a forthcoming report on the threats posed by bad-faith poll workers.
Election officials are quick to note that the vast majority of poll workers working elections across the country are doing it for the right reasons.
The dangers to the election system posed by a bad actor serving as a poll worker — or even a small group of them — are likely much smaller than one who becomes a secretary of state or even a local county clerk, where there is a much greater ability to affect campaigns by changing voting policies or through disrupting the election certification process.
But some local election officials are still concerned that poll workers could present a security risk to voting equipment itself, like in Kent County, or that they could frustrate the processes at polling locations and centralized ballot tabulation centers.
“They could certainly slow down Election Day processing, which could result in lines … [and] if they’re sneaking in phones and violating their oath of office, they could be putting the voter’s secret ballot at risk,” said Barb Byrum, the clerk of Ingham County, Mich. “There’s concern that bad-faith precinct workers could intentionally turn away and disenfranchise voters.”
Poll workers differ significantly from poll watchers, another staple of voting locations and tabulation sites. Poll watchers are there on behalf of campaigns, political parties and civic groups. Their role in the election is to observe, and they typically do not interact with voters, though some jurisdictions still require them to go through a training process.
Poll workers are typically employees of the government who interact with voters and handle ballots. And while some states require a partisan split of workers, they are generally expected to avoid any sort of activity that can be construed as political. Current and former officials expressed concerns about there being an organized effort by partisan groups to recruit and push people into those positions, because their responsibility should be to report to professional election staff.
“What you've seen is a robust, comprehensive effort by purveyors of election myths and disinformation to try and sabotage future U.S. elections,” said David Levine, a former elections official who is now an elections integrity fellow for the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. “And one of the latest ways that these folks are trying to do this sort of thing is to infiltrate and manipulate the election process by getting to poll workers, who are frankly the backbone of U.S. democracy.”
Levine recently authored a report on vetting poll workers and how to handle a potential breach. He urged election officials to vet new poll worker applicants and rigorously train them, and to try to minimize the opportunity for threats throughout the process by utillizing experienced poll workers when possible, and relying on bipartisan teams to the fullest extent possible.
POLITICO previously reported that the Republican National Committee was recruiting poll workers in Michigan in heavily Democratic areas, as well as working with organizations that have embraced “Stop the Steal” to hold “workshops.” The RNC previously said it was working to correct an imbalance in the partisan leaning of workers in Michigan, and a spokesperson told POLITICO for that article that while the RNC works with other groups, “the party’s efforts are independent from any outside organization.”
There are also safeguards in the system that could help guard against rogue poll workers — and minimize the damage if one gets through.
In a one-pager prepared by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s election task force ahead of its report, which was shared first with POLITICO, the organization noted that there is “mounting concern” about “temporary election workers recruited and trained by organizations with nefarious intent.” But the task force also noted that “to date insider threats have been isolated, identified, and thoroughly investigated.”
The briefing also cites broad general principles many states adopt for poll workers — including the fact that they’re typically trained by election officials who can also dismiss them for wrongdoing and that states often strive for partisan parity in poll workers.
“While many states and localities do an excellent job of articulating and enforcing governing rules, poll worker training, codes of conduct, partisan parity and poll worker protection, gaps and discrepancies remain,” the BPC statement continues, urging legislatures to address this in 2023.
Without a coordinated response to address incidents this year, election officials said, some fear that this could only be the beginning.
“I don’t like to be paranoid about this sort of thing, but if there are some groups who are using the midterm elections to see exactly how they can infiltrate into an elections office,” said Natalie Adona, the assistant clerk in Nevada County, Calif., and another BPC task force member, “it does make me concerned for the 2024 election cycle.”