One election worker was followed to her car in the parking lot after hours by an angry voter. The head of elections in a Minnesota county was called repeatedly on her home phone over the weekend.

And recently, someone with an election grievance lunged at the chief election official in a different county, forcing her to call the local sheriff.

"That crosses a line from protecting political speech to conduct that likely has the effect of intimidating someone," said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who's heard these stories from the election officials he works with in all 87 counties.

That type of behavior, intended to intimidate, harass or threaten the tens of thousands of election workers in the state trying to do their job, is now illegal in Minnesota under a new law that went into effect Thursday. Violating the law could come with civil penalties and up to a $1,000 fine each time.

Threats to election workers 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. A growing number of states are passing similar protections ahead of the 2024 election, which is expected to ramp up the pressure on local election administrators and poll workers.

"We've only seen increases in the rhetoric and the toxic environment," said Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored the change in the House. "I'm glad this is going into effect now, because it shows election workers that we have their backs and they have the tools to do their jobs without interference."

While state law previously protected election workers from assault, the change explicitly makes it illegal to interfere with the administration of an election, disseminate the personal information of an election official and to physically obstruct election officials from getting to their job.

It also prohibits tampering with ballot boxes, voting equipment, the state's voter registration system or polling place rosters, issues Greenman said were cropping up in other states.

The new law is part of a wide-reaching election agenda passed by Democrats during the 2023 legislative session that also included automatic voter registration, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and the option to be put on a permanent absentee balloting list.

Democrats also wanted to respond to a raft of conservative election policies passed after the 2020 election with proposals they felt addressed the new reality facing voters and election workers.

Similar changes were made to protect voters from threats or intimidation that could keep them from accessing the ballot box, and lawmakers created new penalties for people who intentionally spread false information intended to prevent someone from voting.

Nationally and in Minnesota, the new environment has made it more challenging to recruit election judges, who are temporary employees trained to manage voting at the polling place on Election Day. Drawn to the work by a sense of civic duty, some are now leaving it behind altogether.

"That reward has changed for them as things have been more adversarial," said Michael Stalberger, who works in elections in Blue Earth County. "It's clearer now. We can show them something the Legislature is doing to protect them while still not infringing on someone's right to vote."

Four other states — Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire and Oregon — passed worker protection laws last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Simon said similar laws have passed in red, blue and swing states.

"Our polling places and election offices remain safe, and they remain good and worthy places to work," he added. "But we've had some isolated incidences that we want to keep isolated."