America relies on hundreds of thousands of temporary workers to staff the polls during elections. But with misinformation running rampant in certain corners, officials worry some poll workers may try to interfere with the voting process this fall.
"There is mounting concern that temporary election workers recruited and trained by organizations with nefarious intent may undermine security and trust in the election process," said the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank out of Washington, D.C., in a recent brief outlining security concerns ahead of the upcoming elections. "Since 2020, there have been several isolated incidents in which temporary election workers attempted to undermine election administration in pursuit of partisan goals."
One figure who's working to recruit right-wing activists to serve as poll workers and watchers is Cleta Mitchell, a conservative lawyer who tried to help former President Donald Trump overturn the results of the 2020 election.
And in Michigan's Kent County, a Republican serving as a poll worker for the first time was recently charged with two felonies after allegedly tampering with an election computer during that state's August primaries.
David Levine, elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, said election deniers and those who spread misinformation are an unfortunate part of today's political landscape. And though there is cause for concern, he said, it's important to note that the overwhelming majority of America's nearly 1 million poll workers are dedicated patriots without an ulterior motive.
"I think the concern that we find ourselves in is that the 'Big Lie' has been a sort of like a virus that has spread throughout nearly every part of American society, including right into the poll worker ranks," Levine told NPR. "But I do think it's important to note that instances of rogue poll workers are few. They're isolated and, you know, when they've occurred, they've been identified and addressed."
Levine said potential poll workers who have a level of distrust in the elections process may be doing the wrong thing for the right reasons — breaking the rules to ensure nobody else breaks the rules.
Fortunately, the Bipartisan Policy Center said in its brief, there are laws, guidelines and precautionary measures officials take to ensure a fair and secure election takes place. Steps include training for temporary workers, codes of conduct and oaths taken by staffers, as well as working in teams for peer oversight.
The center's explainer was unanimously endorsed by the BPC Task Force on Elections, made up of state and local election officials from 20 states.
Joseph Kirk — a task force member and election supervisor in Bartow County, Ga., a primarily conservative county in the northwestern corner of the state — said he trusts his team when it comes to recruiting potential poll workers, and that the county doesn't have a stringent vetting process. Instead, he relies on informative training and the code of conduct to ensure poll workers understand their roles and responsibilities.
And those who violate the rules, Kirk told NPR, are met with swift repercussions.
"If they violate our code of conduct we will take the appropriate action," he said. "I think it's important for the community to know that we take that code of conduct seriously and hold ourselves to that standard."
Kirk and his team also ensure tasks are completed in teams of two, a critical rule that Levine, of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, favors. This includes everything from opening equipment to checking voters in, using peer-to-peer accountability as a system of checks and balances.
Craig Latimer, who runs elections in Hillsborough County, Fla., says voters have reached out with questions related to conspiracy theories — some of whom want to be more involved in the election process.
"We know there are people who are doubters who want to be poll workers," Latimer told NPR. "Quite frankly, I don't have a problem with that. I'd like for them to come in and see what the real process is."
Latimer said the key is to have experienced supervisors familiar with the process on the lookout for any mischief or bad actors.
Levine published a report in late September on precautions election administrators can take to vet poll workers and deter potential mischief. This includes giving poll workers access to only what they need and working in teams. Levine also recommended that jurisdictions allow nonpartisan observation, allowing the public to learn about the election process while monitoring for malicious workers.
The worst-case scenario, Levine said, would be Americans losing faith in the electoral process as a result of poll worker concerns and isolated incidents. He said the best way for the public to help thwart insider attacks is to show up on Election Day in force.
"I think it's critical that people are making sure that they're participating in the process," Levine told NPR. "And I do think that the higher the turnout, the less likelihood that bad actors can successfully meddle in American elections."
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