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Harassing election workers could lead to prison under Oregon bill

Far right demonstrators clash with police and  counter demonstrators during a demonstration against what they erroneously claim was a fraudulent presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021 in Salem, Oregon.
Jonathan Levinson
/
OPB
Far right demonstrators clash with police and counter demonstrators during a demonstration against what they erroneously claim was a fraudulent presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021 in Salem, Oregon.

The bill comes as instances of threats and harassment have spiked nationwide following the 2020 election.

The words appeared outside the Jackson County Clerk’s office in late November 2020, huge white letters painted on the parking lot concrete.

“Next time bullet,” they said, according to pictures snapped by Jackson County Clerk Christine Walker. “Vote don’t work.”

The sentiment stunned Walker and her staff, she told Oregon lawmakers Tuesday. Even in a county that had just certified results that showed President Donald Trump had prevailed among local voters, the lie that the election had been stolen from him was leading to threats of violence against officials who ran that election.

Similar incidents have played out in Oregon and around the country since the 2020 election. Now state lawmakers are considering a bill that would create harsh new penalties for anyone who threatens an elections worker in connection with their official duties.

House Bill 4144 would make it a felony to harass state, county and local elections workers with threats or “offensive” contact such as shoving them in the course of, or because of, their official duties. A conviction for the class C felony could result in a five-year prison sentence.

The bill also would also exempt the addresses of election workers from being released as part of voter registration records, if an official requests that their information remain private.

“As we head into the 2022 election season, we must do all that we can to protect election workers against physical harm fueled by misinformation,” said Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, who requested the bill and called it a “cornerstone” of her agenda.

An internal survey of workers in the 15-person state Elections Division that Fagan oversees unearthed some wrenching stories, she said. One worker described crying regularly following the stress of the 2020 elections; others said they were subject to frequent harassment over the phone or had considered quitting. In all, 10 out of 13 workers who responded to the survey reported experiencing threats or harassment while doing their jobs.

Nationally, the picture is similar. A survey commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University last year found that roughly 17% of local elections officials had experienced harassment and that nearly a third had felt unsafe because of their job.

HB 4144 got its first hearing Tuesday in the House Rules Committee. With the bill, Oregon joins a growing list of states taking up the problem of threats to elections officials. A bill that’s already passed the Washington state Senate would make harassing an election worker a class C felony. Maine, Colorado, Vermont and New Mexico are considering similar legislation.

Oregon’s bill is supported by the Oregon Association of County Clerks, made up of the officials who administer elections in each of the state’s 36 counties. It’s also got backing from the League of Women Voters.

But not everyone is comfortable with threatening people with prison time for harassing elections officials.

State Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, questioned Tuesday why Fagan’s staff had opted to escalate the crime to a felony when the same actions are misdemeanors when carried out against others. Jessica Ventura, legislative director for the secretary of state, suggested lawmakers had extended similar protections to transit workers with a 2019 bill, though the bill she referenced never actually got a hearing.

“Felony to me seems excessive,” Zika said.

The group Common Cause Oregon agreed. In written testimony otherwise supporting HB 4144, the good government organization said it would have “reservations about changing a misdemeanor level of harassment to a felony.”

Lawmakers this year are also considering a bill that would make it a class C felony to injure a hospital employee, which is currently a misdemeanor. That proposal, House Bill 4142, is sitting in the House Rules Committee after passing out of another committee last week with broad support.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.