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Levin introduces bill to protect election workers: "This is existential to our democracy"

Crowds outside TCF Center
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Crowds gather outside of the TCF Center in Detroit as election workers count votes shortly after the November 2020 election. (file photo)

New legislation proposed in the U.S. House by Michigan Congressman Andy Levin would amend the Voting Rights Act to add protections for election workers facing threats and intimidation.

Levin, a Democrat who represents parts of Oakland and Macomb counties, said such threats are “an existential threat to our democracy,” and that penalties and prohibitions on them need to be clarified and enforced on the federal level.

Andy Levin
Andy Levin campaign

Levin said former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims about a stolen election led to tense and threatening situations at some polling places and absentee counting boards in 2020, including Detroit’s TCF Center.

“The rhetoric that inflames threats against election workers and jeopardizes the administration of elections continues today,” he said. “These provisions specifically address the threats we saw in the aftermath of the 2020 election. We really tried to look at what happened and what would need to happen to remedy that and prevent it from happening.”

The Election Worker and Polling Place Protection Act would amend the Voting Rights Act to implement penalties, including fines and prison sentences, for anyone who threatens, intimidates, or gets violent with election workers, including volunteers and election equipment workers. It would also prohibit and penalize anyone who damages polling places or election equipment. A companion bill has already been introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Several Michigan city clerks who joined Levin for a news conference on Friday echoed those concerns, saying that threats to election workers have fundamentally changed their jobs and their lives.

“I have seen election administration evolve from our biggest concern being whether we had enough precinct inspectors, to protecting our profession and integrity from disinformation campaigns and our election workers from threats and intimidation,” said Ferndale city clerk Marne McGrath, who has worked in elections administration since 2008.

Royal Oak city clerk Melanie Halas echoed that sentiment, saying the atmosphere affects their ability to administer elections and ensure their accuracy and integrity.

After the 2020 election, “we were constantly debunking false election information,” Halas said. “Never before did I have to answer questions from election workers regarding what would they do if someone brings a gun into a precinct. It was very disheartening to have to hear that from them.

“Personally, I have friends who work as clerks and they have since left the profession. We shouldn't be losing good election administrators because they are concerned for the safety of their families.”

Levin admitted that the bill, like other recent voting rights legislation, faces a tough read ahead, especially in the closely-divided Senate. But, "I think it's a fluid situation, and I think there really is a chance that we can move some voting rights legislation,” he said. “So I think it's important to keep pushing forward legislation that really is commonsense, and just tries to improve the situation of administering elections.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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