Nebraska lawmakers: why do election workers need more legal protection?

Nebraska lawmakers seem cool on the idea of giving additional legal protections for poll workers based on First Amendment concerns and whether the new criminal penalties are truly needed.

Democratic State Sen. Eliot Bostar’s election workers’ safety bill would make it a misdemeanor to harass and harm election workers, including disseminating addresses and personal information and creating deep fakes of election workers within 60 days of an election.

A Brennan Center for Justice survey in March 2022 found that 20% of election officials are unlikely to stay in their jobs for the 2024 presidential election, up from 6% who previously said they would leave before the 2022 midterms.

The biggest reasons for their departure: attacks from political leaders on the U.S. election system and high stress in a job increasingly subjected to harassment and ridicule from conspiracy theorists who claim the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

“It is not merely a matter of protecting individual officials but preserving fundamental principles upon which our nation is founded,” Bostar said at the hearing.

More: Who's running this election anyway? High turnover and threats plague election offices

Nebraska state Sen. Eliot Bostar.
Nebraska state Sen. Eliot Bostar.

The bill received strong pushback from state Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, who showed concern about the legislation’s potential impact on First Amendment rights and whether it was necessary given current laws that already criminalize threats to election workers.

“I’m very, very concerned about the intersection of criminal law and the intersection with free expression and free speech that would need to be chilled underneath an approach like this,” Conrad said. “I just don’t think this bill is ready for prime time, and I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Gina Ligon, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center (NCITE), said the legislation is needed because many threats to election workers go unreported, and the threats continue.

“The trendline shows no signs of stopping,” said Ligon. “The bar for federal prosecutions is far too high, and our figure does not capture where most reporting starts, which is local.”

More: Could AI sway the 2024 election? Here's what's being done nationally to stop deepfakes.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian W. Kruse said there had been no credible, serious threats to election officials or workers in the state that he was aware of. Still, Hall County Election Commissioner Tracy Overstreet told the committee about a fake bomb that was sent to the commissioner’s office in 2020 that led to an evacuation and numerous poll workers never to return.

Both commissioners agreed the bill’s ban on disseminating deep fakes of election workers 60 days before an election is important but should be implemented year-round.

“Election security is a 365-day year issue, not just an election season issue,” Kruse said to the committee.

The committee has yet to take action on the legislation

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nebraska lawmakers ask why election workers need more legal protection