Minnesota could see new protections for the tens of thousands of people who manage state elections — and penalties for those who target them.
Democrats now in control of all statewide offices and the Legislature are pushing a package of legislation that aims to crack down on rising harassment faced by election judges and administrators in Minnesota and across the country.
"They serve on the front lines of democracy and increasingly they face threats and intimidation just for doing their work," Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said on Monday. "That is unacceptable and we need to make it clear that this behavior is not tolerated anywhere in Minnesota."
Threats and harassment have dramatically increased since the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump's false claims of widespread voter fraud put a target on people who manage and run elections.
Minnesota elections are administered by local officials in all 87 counties, who rely on more than 30,000 election judges from both political parties to help staff the polling places on Election Day.
"These are not faceless individuals, these are not people from other states, it's right here in Minnesota," said Katie Smith, the director of elections and voter services for the city of Minneapolis. "These are your friends, your family and your neighbors."
Simon, a Democrat elected to his third term in November, had to regularly talk to law enforcement about his security in the aftermath of the 2020 election, a first during his career. He cited several examples of harassment: an election worker followed to the person's car in the parking lot after work hours; someone who received threatening phone calls at home on the weekend; an election worker "physically accosted" at work.
His office worked to increase physical security for election workers and create a system for reporting threats in the last election, but Simon also wants to put new protections into law that target intimidation, false allegations, obstructing election duties and the dissemination of personal information of election workers.
Legislation would make these actions a gross misdemeanor, which would come with fines and civil liability. Proponents hope changes could slow attrition happening across the country among election administers.
"No one is looking to touch that First Amendment activity, but if you go beyond that, and you start really, genuinely harassing people and really interfering with the election process at the polling place or otherwise, that's when we need to augment our laws to get at that," Simon said.
Election worker protections are among a list of priorities Simon rolled out Monday for the 2023 legislative session, including automatic voter registration, pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds to vote and restoring the right to vote for people with felony convictions who have been released from prison and are on probation. That bill will get its first legislative hearing this week.
"I've been free for almost seven years at this point, and each year, every single year, while I'm helping to drive thousands to the polls, I'm not able to hold up that little red sticker that says 'I voted,' " said Elizer Darris, co-executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund.
Simon's agenda largely lines up with proposals rolled out by Democrats in control of the Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz, meaning many of his priorities could become a reality this year.
Legislative Republicans have been critical of that agenda, arguing Democrats are abandoning a long tradition at the Capitol that election-related measures have bipartisan support.
"Instead of trying to railroad their priorities through, we hope Democrats will choose to honor the tradition and engage in productive discussion on what measures need to be taken to ensure complete confidence in our elections," Rep. Paul Torkelson, the GOP lead on the House elections committee, said in a statement.
Simon said these policies are in place in red and blue states and should be able to get bipartisan support at the Capitol. He's reaching out to legislators on both sides of the aisle to try and build support.