An amended bill to strengthen protections for Maine election officials won unanimous support Monday from the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

Committee members also voted 7-5 to recommend passage of a separate bill that would more closely regulate the chain of custody for ballots and voting machines.

Threats against election workers have been on the rise since the contentious 2020 presidential election. Former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him have fueled suspicion about election integrity among some voters.

A survey of election officials last summer by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election workers feels unsafe on the job, and nearly one in five listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern.

The original version of L.D. 1821, An Act to Make Interfering with an Election Official a Class C crime, would have made it a felony to threaten an election worker. The amended version makes threatening an election worker a Class D crime under the jurisdiction of the Attorney General’s Office and adds a reporting procedure for threats received by an election worker.

L.D. 1779, An Act to Protect Election Integrity by Regulating Possession of Ballots and Voting Machines and Devices, also will now go to the full Legislature for consideration.

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A Class C felony is punishable by up to 5 years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Current law defines threatening election workers as obstructing government administration, a Class D misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

L.D. 1821, sponsored by Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, would also require the secretary of state to provide town and city clerks with de-escalation training.

White said Maine election workers are dedicated, non-partisan and work long hours to support the voting process. His bill aims to protect workers from threats of physical force, violence and intimidation.

Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, who sponsored L.D. 1779, said her bill would clarify who is legally authorized to possess ballots and voting machines. The bill was crafted in response to problems that occurred during the 2020 election in Arizona and Colorado, where voting machines and ballots were turned over to unauthorized individuals with partisan agendas, Pierce said in a statement.

Pierce said Maine has a secure voting system manned by professional election officials, but the bill would help guard against problems that have arisen in other states.

“Maine voters deserve to know we are doing everything we can to protect their votes,” Pierce said.

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White’s anti-harassment bill is backed by municipal clerks and Secretary of State Shenna Bellows.

“Protecting Maine’s elections from interference and subversion, either through election worker intimidation or outside political interference, is paramount,” Bellows said in a statement. “When our towns and city clerks are threatened, or ballots and equipment compromised, our democracy itself is threatened.”

The original version that would have made threatening a Class C felony was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The ACLU of Maine told the Press Herald last month that current laws prohibiting obstruction of government administration, criminal threatening, terrorizing and stalking are sufficient to prosecute those who harass election workers. There is no evidence that making those acts a felony would prevent them from occurring, the group said.

In the last year, there has been a dramatic increase in documented threats against election officials across the United States. In response, the FBI created a task force charged with responding to such threats.

Bellows said her office received documented reports of at least two threats of physical violence against municipal clerks in Maine.

Reuters conducted an investigation in December that identified more than 850 threatening and hostile messages directed at election workers nationally that violated federal law. Reuters reported that virtually all of the threats came from people who supported Trump or believe his claim that the election was stolen.

The messages cited by Reuters spanned 30 jurisdictions in 16 states and were made via emails, voicemails, texts, letter and internet posts.

Note: This article was updated Tuesday, Feb. 8 to reflect amendments in the final version of the bill addressing threats against election workers.


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