Expert Commentary

Reporting on violence and threats against US election workers: 6 things to know

In this research-based tipsheet, we cover what journalists should know about the history of electoral violence in the U.S., whether Americans think political violence is justified and how election workers, also called poll workers, think about their jobs.

poll worker
(Ernie Journeys / Unsplash)

Threats against poll workers made national news following false claims from former President Donald Trump and supporters that Joe Biden had fraudulently won the 2020 presidential election.

For example, in Georgia “two local election workers, Ruby Freeman and Wandrea Moss were pressured to make false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election,” write the authors of a 2022 essay on local political violence, published in the State and Local Government Review. “After refusing to lie, a far-right media outlet spread conspiracies about the two women that resulted in a mob surrounding their house.”

In April 2024, a federal judge upheld a $148 million judgment for Freeman and Moss from a civil case against former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who admitted to making false claims about the poll workers.

Poll workers perform fundamental tasks in democratic societies, ensuring citizens can safely and freely cast their ballots for measures and candidates, often working long hours on Election Day for low pay.

More than 900,000 poll workers staffed early voting sites and Election Day polling places during the 2016 national elections in the U.S., according to the federal Election Assistance Commission. That number dipped to about 775,000 for 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed in-person voting.    

Poll workers are often temporary government employees hired to help on Election Day, though they almost always undergo training beforehand. They greet voters, remind them of their voting district, verify their eligibility, help them use voting equipment, assist voters with disabilities and register voters in states that allow same-day registration, among other tasks.

While poll worker job titles vary by election district, districts may hire a clerk in charge of overall operations on Election Day along with assistant clerks, equipment operators, inspectors who verify that voters are registered, and deputies who greet voters.

Pay varies by election administration jurisdictions, which usually align with county boundaries. In Miami-Dade County, for example, poll workers are paid between $200 and $346 including training, pre-election setup and Election Day duties.

Most poll workers in New York City get $250 for Election Day and are expected to work from 5 a.m. to after 9 p.m., when polls close. In rural Coffee County, Alabama, Election Day pay maxes out at $185.

Election officials, by contrast, are government employees who work on Election Day but also during the rest of the year to prepare for and administer elections.

Journalists can reach out to election officials or visit election office websites to find poll worker duties and job titles. The nonpartisan U.S. Vote Foundation offers this election official directory by state.

Poll worker intimidation and threats

Poll workers are often motivated by civic duty, according to research and reporting featured in the tipsheet below. Despite their commitment to democracy, poll workers have recently been increasingly concerned about threats and violence while doing their jobs.

More than one-third of election officials — 38% — have experienced “threats, harassment, or abuse” specifically because of their job, finds a 2024 survey of 928 local election officials conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

That’s up from 30% who reported the same the year prior. More than half of the officials surveyed in 2024 by the Brennan Center said they are worried about the safety of their staff in future elections and 92% have enacted measures to protect voters and poll workers since 2020.

Some 28% indicated they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about harassment or threats aimed at their family or loved ones while 27% were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about being assaulted at home or work.

Looking to November

The 2024 presidential race is poised to be a rematch between Trump and Biden.

The ongoing potential for threats to poll workers and election officials is real enough that the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a task force to address those threats.

But some election officials don’t think the task force is doing enough. National Association of State Election Directors Executive Director Amy Cohen in June told reporter Zachary Roth with the nonprofit Oregon Capital Chronicle that it is “very clear that we are not seeing a deterrent effect.”

At the same time, threats do not always come to the attention of police — 45% of local election officials surveyed by the Brennan Center who reported being threatened did not file a report to law enforcement.

We put together this tipsheet, mostly based on recent academic research, to bolster your coverage of threats and violence against election workers in advance of Election Day 2024.

1. Understand the social forces that tend to lead to political violence.

Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, identifies four risk factors for political violence in an October 2021 paper in the Journal of Democracy. Kleinfeld defines political violence broadly as “physical harm or intimidation that affects who benefits from or can participate fully in political, economic, or sociocultural life.”

To identify social and political situations that increase the risk for political violence, she draws from examples of political violence abroad, such as anti-Muslim attacks during the political rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the early 2000s.

The risk factors, according to Kleinfeld, are:

  • A contested election with high stakes for the balance of power. “For much of U.S. history, one party held legislative power for decades,” Kleinfeld writes. “Yet since 1980, a shift in control of at least one house of Congress was possible — and since 2010, elections have seen a level of competition not seen since Reconstruction.”
  • Partisanship based on broad groups. “Up to the 1990s, many Americans belonged to multiple identity groups –for example, a union member might have been a conservative, religious, Southern man who nevertheless voted Democratic,” Kleinfeld writes. “Today, Americans have sorted themselves into two broad identity groups: Democrats tend to live in cities, are more likely to be minorities, women, and religiously unaffiliated, and are trending liberal. Republicans generally live in rural areas or exurbs and are more likely to be white, male, Christian, and conservative.”
  • Election rules, such as winner-take-all, that let candidates exploit partisanship. “Winner-take-all elections are particularly prone to violence, possibly because small numbers of voters can shift outcomes,” Kleinfeld writes. “Two-party systems are also more correlated with violence than are multiparty systems, perhaps because they create us-them dynamics that deepen polarization.”
  • A lack of institutional checks on political violence. “The United States suffers from three particularly concerning institutional weaknesses today — the challenge of adjudicating disputes between the executive and legislative branches inherent in presidential majoritarian systems, recent legal decisions enhancing the electoral power of state legislatures, and the politicization of law enforcement and the courts,” Kleinfeld writes.

Kleinfeld concludes: “Although political violence in the United States is on the rise, it is still lower than in many other countries. Once violence begins, however, it fuels itself. Far from making people turn away in horror, political violence in the present is the greatest factor normalizing it for the future.”

2. Know that a small but notable segment of the U.S. population thinks political violence is sometimes justified.

To capture a snapshot of Americans’ views of political violence, nine scholars affiliated with the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, conducted a nationally representative survey with 8,620 participants during the summer of 2022. Results were published in September 2023 in the journal Injury Epidemiology.  

Nearly 20% of those surveyed strongly or very strongly agreed that having a “strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy.” About 14% strongly or very strongly agreed that “in the next few years, there will be civil war in the United States.” And nearly 8% reported that in the future they would be very or extremely likely to be “armed with a gun” in a situation where political violence is justified.

The researchers define political violence as “the use of physical force or violence to advance political objectives.” When they asked participants to imagine a scenario in which they believed political violence was justified “to advance an important political objective,” nearly 22% responded that political violence is never justified.

But, given the same scenario, 4.5% responded that they would be sometimes, very or completely willing to use violence against a poll worker and 6.1% reported the same for using force or violence against an elected local official.

The authors estimate 8 million adults in the U.S. think violence in general can be justified to make political gains, though they emphasize caution since their survey is small compared with the overall population. 

“Our extrapolations also suggest that millions of Americans would be very or completely willing to engage in violence themselves to advance a political objective that they support; between 5 and 6 million people would threaten or intimidate someone, injure them, or kill them,” the authors write.

3. Remind audiences of the long history of electoral violence in the U.S.

While recent violence and threats toward poll workers may seem startling to audiences, they should be made aware of the long history of electoral violence in the U.S.

For example, Black politicians faced violent attacks from white individuals and mobs following the Civil War. This violence formed the foundation for Jim Crow laws that segregated public facilities for white and Black Americans and sharply curtailed Black voting rights for generations.

“The pursuit of legalized voter suppression by Southern Democrats only became possible once violence had been successful enough to put Democrats back in power, Southern state governments (re)developed electoral institutions, and national Republicans abandoned black voters,” write the authors of a March 2019 paper in Perspectives on Politics.

Before and after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s outlawed Jim Crow era segregation, Black voters attempting to register in the south faced physical threats and violence, including from white individuals, mobs and law enforcement.

“Sporadic violence to discourage black political participation persisted as late as the 1960s and lynching continued to be a tool to limit black civil rights, repress black labor, reinforce white racial solidarity, and punish blacks for alleged crimes for many years,” write the authors of the Perspectives on Politics paper.

4. Interview poll workers about what motivates them.

Despite sometimes facing threats to their safety, many poll workers remain resilient in their commitment to facilitating free and fair elections in the U.S. In reviewing recent research, the authors of a chapter in a 2024 book on lessons learned from the 2020 presidential race, published by academic press Springer Link, relay that civic duty and social engagement are top motivators for poll workers.

The authors also conduct their own survey on what motivates poll workers — specifically, 1,729 poll workers in Miami-Dade County during early 2021. Those surveyed were most motivated by being part of the democratic process, performing their civic duty or wanting “to make a difference.”

They were least motivated by financial considerations, such as making some extra money, a finding that tracks with a quarter of participants being retired and despite large job losses at the time stemming from COVID-19 business closures.

But, the authors note, returning poll workers were more interested in pay than first-time poll workers, suggesting that “financial motivations may be less important for recruitment of new poll workers but may become increasingly important for retaining poll workers from election to election.”

The poll workers in Miami motivated by a sense of civic duty are not alone. For example, a poll worker near Seattle received an envelope of white powder while counting mail-in ballots during November 2023. But the elected official in charge told Stateline reporter Matt Vasilogambros that after the fire department arrived, “everybody marched right into that building, and said, ‘Oh, heck no, you are not disrupting the democratic process.’”

5. Understand how election officials try to manage the emotional burden of intimidation, for themselves and their staff.

Poll workers are often steadfast in their commitment to the democratic process, but intimidation and violence can take an emotional toll on them.

Experts and journalists who have researched and worked with trauma survivors say trauma-informed journalism is a good way to tell better, more accurate stories and help protect survivors from further harm.

“Most election workers come to the job with a strong sense of patriotism and pride in their work,” write the authors of a November 2022 article in the journal Administration and Society. “The enthusiasm election workers have for their job is crucial to maintaining trust in the system and creating a connection with the citizen-customer.”

For many citizens, the voting experience and interactions with poll workers “can shape voter perceptions of the government in a broader sense,” the authors write. For poll workers, greeting citizens in a friendly way and doing their best to ensure a smooth voting experience is part of what the authors call “emotional labor,” borrowing a phrase from past research.

For example, the burden of emotional labor might be high for a poll worker who is tired at the end of a long Election Day but is still expected to be helpful and courteous to voters.

The authors of the Administration and Society article identify three ways election administrators have recently tried to relieve or limit the emotional labor of poll workers in the face of violence or violent threats. Some are leaning into more public outreach, while others are making their election offices and workers less accessible to the public.

  • Administrative strategies “focus on changes to the way the job is done to avoid burnout from emotional labor,” the authors write. This may include administrators investing in public education campaigns and offering tours of poll sites to build trust with voters they serve. Strategies may also include establishing election associations for officials to share best practices for combating misinformation and ensuring poll worker safety.
  • Security strategies “may encompass tactics to protect and manage any direct and indirect attack or threat,” the authors write. Some election officials have put bulletproof glass in their offices and have decreased public outreach. Training for some poll workers now includes “deeper security instructions and quick ways to contact the main election office in the case of incidents.”
  • Personal protective strategies, such as those used by the city clerk of Detroit, who “took firearms training and now carries a concealed weapon after receiving threats, including one outside of her home,” the authors write. Other officials, such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, have requested more police presence at polling places and election offices following threats.

6. Note the difference between poll watchers and poll workers.

Poll workers and poll watchers sound similar but they’re very different. While poll workers are employed by election administration offices, poll watchers, sometimes called “election observers,” are members of the public or partisan groups interested in observing parts of the Election Day process.

States have different rules for people interested in observing voting. In certain jurisdictions they may be able to arrive early to polling sites and verify that voting machines are empty of ballots, watch election officials testing voting machines and other routine but important parts of setting up on Election Day.

Poll watchers are often members of partisan groups or political parties that may favor or oppose certain candidates or ballot measures. Election administration agencies may offer guides detailing poll watcher rights and rules.

They generally are allowed only to ensure that the voting process appears fair. No one watching an election may disrupt the process. States also restrict electioneering — trying to influence voters by handing out pamphlets or partisan apparel, for example — near polling sites.

But poll watchers too have a fraught history. During Reconstruction and again during the 1950s and 1960s, poll watchers intimated racial minorities attempting to exercise their right to register and vote. More recently, before the 2020 presidential election, Trump called on supporters to volunteer as poll watchers and “watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do,” none of which happened.

Other resources


Georgetown University Law Center | What to do if armed groups are near polling or registration places

MIT Election Data + Science Lab | Opting Out? Recent Challenges in Recruiting and Retaining Poll Workers

Election Law Journal | What Do We Actually Know About Poll Worker Recruitment in the United States?

Federal government

U.S. Department of Justice | Public Integrity Section annual reports

U.S. Election Assistance Commission | Election Administration and Voting Survey reports | Election Official Security


Brookings Institution | The Americans on the front lines of elections

U.S. Vote Foundation | Election Official Directory

National Association of State Election Directors | State voter information

National Association of Election Officials | Board of Directors

News coverage

NBC News | Election worker turnover has reached historic highs ahead of the 2024 vote, new data shows

Oregon Capital Chronicle | Election workers worry that federal threats task force isn’t enough to keep them safe

Stateline | In face of threats, election workers vow: ‘You are not disrupting the democratic process’

The New York Times | Election Workers Face Flood of Threats, but Charges Are Few

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