Penalties for in-person harassment of election workers debated

Jan 29, 2024, 11:42 PM | Updated: Jan 30, 2024, 6:23 am

election workers harassment...

A New Hampshire voter chats with one of the election officials at the polling place located inside the Stark Volunteer Fire Department. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Getty Images)

(Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Getty Images)

The Washington State Senate has begun debating a bill that would make the penalties for harassing an election worker in person the same as if it were done online.

Opponents claimed it violates the constitutional right of freedom of speech.

The House has passed the bill twice, but this is the first time the Senate has seen it presented on its side of the rotunda.

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In 2023, lawmakers passed — and the governor signed — a bill making online harassment of an election worker a Class C felony, but it did not include harassment done in person. As it stands now, if a person were to send an email to an election worker threatening to kill said worker, that’s a Class C felony. The threatened worker would be able to register his or her address with the secretary of state in the Address Confidentiality Program.

In the state of Washington, Class C felonies are punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

But if that same person were to show up “in person” and make the same threat, that crime would be a gross misdemeanor, and that election worker could not enroll in the state Address Anonymity Program.

Gross misdemeanors in this state are punishable by up to 90 days in county jail in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Senate Bill 1241 attempts to treat in-person crime the same as the cybercrime. (A PDF of a version of the bill can be viewed here.)

“This bill aligns the methods of the threat. So regardless of the elements in person or online, it is treated the same,” Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, said to the Senate Crime and Justice Committee on Monday. “Our election workers deserve to be protected when simply serving as well.”

County auditors testify for the bill

Several county auditors testified in favor of the bill, including one who lost half her staff due to threats against her election workers.

Cowlitz County Auditor Carolynn Fundingsland said her elections director resigned. Another staff member took early retirement after the 2020 election.

“Staff was exhausted, feared for their safety and simply weren’t paid enough to tolerate the constant hostility,” Fundingsland said.

She testified that the daily interaction with the public has changed.

“What used to be simple and efficient transactions have morphed into charged accusations and demands,” she said. “The hostility seemed to come from people who weren’t involved in organized politics and did not take the time to ask questions or tour our facility to learn how we conduct secure elections.”

The Cowlitz County Board of Commissioners has taken measures to prevent such hostility in the future, including a local ordinance trying to deter bad behavior, issuing potential trespass warnings to those who scream vulgarities at election workers.

Opposition to the bill

Tae Macro opposed the bill, expressing concerns that it could allow for political speech to be arbitrarily deemed as harassment.

“Without further amendment, there is too much risk of violating First Amendment rights or being used to silence political opponents,” Macro said.

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Julie Barrett, representing the Conservative Ladies of Washington, also opposed the bill, claiming it could potentially infringe upon the constitutional rights of Washington citizens to peacefully picket or protest.

“It’s imperative to protect citizens who have a right to free speech and peaceful demonstration from being accused or charged with a crime of harassment,” Barrett said.

The same bill passed the House 85-11, with several Republicans opposing it, saying it would weaponize political speech into a criminal offense. The Senate Crime and Justice Committee will make a recommendation on its passage to the full Senate Tuesday.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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