WASHINGTON – A longtime Republican election attorney criticized new laws in mostly Republican states that target election officials with criminal prosecution. The attorney, Ben Ginsberg, told Medill News Service on Tuesday that these laws will make it more difficult for officials to do their jobs.

Republican states have passed a flurry of laws following the 2020 election that restrict voting and alter the way elections are run. At least 12 states have enacted new criminal penalties targeting election officials after 2020, States Newsroom reported in July. The vast majority of these laws were passed by Republican-controlled states. In Arizona, for instance, an election administrator could get up to 2½ years in prison for sending a mail-in ballot to a voter who has not requested one. In Iowa, election administrators may be incarcerated for up to two years for failing to update voter rolls.

These new laws imposing criminal penalties on election officials have faced criticism from the left, but when a prominent Republican election attorney also voices opposition, it lends credence to the claim that they’re harmful for democracy. 

Ginsberg was one of the top election lawyers in Republican politics for 30 years, but he has been critical of the GOP in recent years. Ginsberg wrote in a 2020 Washington Post op-ed that the party was “destroying itself on the altar of Trump.” During a June hearing of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, Ginsberg testified that Donald Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud in 2020 were groundless.

Speaking Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, Ginsberg said laws imposing criminal penalties on election administrators “seek to super-charge harassment of election officials.” He pointed to the high number of election administrators leaving their jobs. One in five election officials say they are likely to quit before the 2024 election, according to a survey released in March by the left-leaning Brennan Center.

“As with any institution, when you lose experience, your organization can suffer,” Ginsberg said

Ginsberg said states should not criminalize minor mistakes by election officials.

“There are going to be built-in violations because of human nature,” he said.

To help election officials cope with these new legal penalties, Ginsberg has helped create the Election Official Legal Defense Network to provide them with free legal support.

“Laws that have the potential to criminally charge election officials are going to have a dampening, chilling effect on their ability and willingness to do their jobs,” Ginsberg said in an interview after the event.

Election officials face violent threats

Lori Scott knows first-hand the attacks election officials have faced. The former Supervisor of Elections for Brevard County, Florida left the post she held for 14 years earlier this month. Scott, an elected Republican, came under fire from members of her own party over her oversight of the 2020 election, Florida Today reported. A faction of the local GOP alleged Scott had failed to properly maintain voter rolls, allowing tens of thousands of ineligible Brevard voters to cast a ballot in 2020. Election experts told Florida Today that such claims are unfounded, the newspaper reported.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute event, Scott discussed how election officials have faced harassment and violent threats.

“I had a gentleman in 2018 threaten to blow up my office,” Scott said.

Many election officials have received threats of violence in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Last year, the Justice Department created a task force to investigate threats against election workers, which has resulted in the prosecution of at least five people.

Scott said voters often direct their anger at election officials if their preferred candidate doesn’t win, as these officials are the public face of elections. 

“It’s not because that election administrator did anything wrong or didn’t do their job,” Scott said. “They just have nowhere else to aim it.”

Threats against election administrators make it more difficult for them to do their jobs, Scott said in an interview after the event. 

“It is a detraction and a deterrent from a job that demands 100% of your focus,” she said.

Scott said threats against election officials have gotten worse in recent years.

“When I took the job 14 years ago, you wouldn’t think about people calling to threaten to blow up your office,” she said. “But that’s a reality now.”