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Harassed and Harangued, Poll Workers Now Have a New Form of Defense

WASHINGTON — It is perhaps a metaphor for the times that even the volunteer who checked you into the polls in November now has a legal defense committee.

The Election Official Legal Defense Network, which made its public debut on Sept. 7, offers to represent more than just poll workers, of course. Formed to counter the waves of political pressure and public bullying that election workers have faced in the last year, the organization pledges free legal services to anyone involved in the voting process, from secretaries of state to local election officials and volunteers.

The group already has received inquiries from several election officials, said David J. Becker, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, which oversees the project. Without getting into details, Mr. Becker said their queries were “related to issues like harassment and intimidation.”

The network is the creation of two powerhouses in Republican and Democratic legal circles, Benjamin L. Ginsberg and Bob Bauer. In a Washington Post opinion piece this month, the two — Mr. Ginsberg was a premier G.O.P. lawyer for 38 years and Mr. Bauer was both a Democratic Party lawyer and White House counsel in the Obama administration — wrote that such attacks on people “overseeing the counting and casting of ballots on an independent, nonpartisan basis are destructive to our democracy.”

“If such attacks go unaddressed, our system of self-governance will suffer long-term damage,” they said.

Mr. Ginsberg, who has broken with his party and become a scathing critic of former President Donald J. Trump’s false claims the 2020 election was stolen from him, and Mr. Bauer are themselves election experts. The two men together chaired the Presidential Commission on Election Administration established by former President Barack Obama in 2013, which called — with limited success — for moderniziing election procedures and equipment to make voting easier and more secure.

In an interview, Mr. Bauer said he and Mr. Ginsberg were recruiting lawyers for the Legal Defense Network, hoping to build out an organization “so in any state where this happens, we’re in a position to provide election officials who are under siege with legal support.” Dozens already have signed on to the effort, with many more anticipated to join them soon, Mr. Becker said.

The center is nonpartisan, offering to represent election workers of any political bent, whether they work in a red district or a blue one. But as the announcement by Mr. Ginsburg and Mr. Bauer implicitly noted, the problems confronting election workers ballooned only after the 2020 general election, and have come almost entirely from conservative supporters of Mr. Trump and legislators in Republican-controlled states.

One third of election workers say they feel unsafe in their jobs, according to a survey released this summer by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. In Colorado, Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and other states, ardent believers in Mr. Trump’s stolen-election lies have threatened state and local election officials and their families with violence and even death. Some election workers have gone into hiding or sought police protection.

Republican-controlled state legislatures have responded to fraud claims by taking control of some aspects of election administration and by making election workers subject to fines or even imprisonment for rules violations.

In Iowa, a new law subjects election officials who fail to follow new voting rules to criminal prosecution. A new Texas law leaves election workers liable for prosecution if they are judged to knowingly obstruct the view of partisan poll monitors. In Florida, a new rule fines local election officials up to $25,000 if they leave ballot drop boxes unsupervised or allow voters to deposit ballots after official hours.

Mr. Becker, of the Innovation and Research Center, called the growing intimidation of election workers unconscionable. “These are public civil servants in most cases,” he said. “They are not people who do this because they want to get rich and famous. They’re doing this out of a sense of duty.”

The legal network is likely to be valuable precisely because most of the people it will serve are in fact ordinary citizens, said David Levine, an election integrity expert at the Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy. Mr. Levine has worked as an election official in the District of Columbia and Idaho.

“It’s hard enough to do your job well when you’re dealing with tremendous stress and working long hours, let alone having to wonder whether your decisions could result in threats to your co-workers and your family,” he said. “It serves an important purpose to say ‘We have your back, regardless of how big or small your election jurisdiction is or how wealthy you or your community may be.’”

Mr. Bauer has mixed feelings about the applause for the new venture.

“It’s hard to say we’re enjoying success because there’s an enormous amount of demand for this kind of support,” he said. “That there is this demand is deeply troubling.”

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