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Maryland bill backed by Gov. Wes Moore seeks to protect election officials from threats

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation to enable authorities to prosecute people who threaten to harm election officials or their immediate family members, as threats are on the rise across the country.

The Protecting Election Officials Act of 2024, which has the support of Gov. Wes Moore, would make threatening an election official a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine of up to $2,500.

“This has been a phenomenon which has occurred across the country," said Eric Luedtke, Moore's chief legislative officer, at a bill hearing Wednesday. “It’s a phenomenon that has targeted election workers, regardless of political affiliation, race, gender, what roles their filling.”

Ruie Marie LaVoie, who is vice president of the Maryland Association of Elections Officials and now serves as director of the Baltimore County Board of Elections, testified about her experience being threatened during the 2022 election. She testified before the Senate Education, Energy, and the Environment Committee that the measure would help ensure the safety and security “of those at the forefront of preserving our democratic processes.”

“We are struggling with recruitment, not only hiring election judges, but filling vacancies in our offices," she said.

The measure would prohibit someone from knowingly and willfully making a threat to harm an election official or an immediate family member of an election official, because of the election official’s role in administering the election process.

Sarah David, Maryland's deputy state prosecutor, said the measure contains language that already has been defined in case law. For example, the word harm in the bill would include emotional distress, she said.

“This is important legislation to address the modern reality of elections, the role of social media’s impact on election judges and other personnel, and would ensure that the integrity and fairness of our elections is maintained," David said.

Jared DeMarinis, Maryland's elections administrator, said state elections officials are on the front lines of democracy, and they already are experiencing vitriol for doing their jobs.

“Right now, we have it a little bit in Maryland," DeMarinis said. "It has not been as bad as nationally, but it is there, and these tides are coming against us, and so I just wanted to say that is now the new reality.”

Since 2020, 14 states have enacted laws specifically addressing protections for election officials and poll workers as of December, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ben Hovland, vice chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said too many election officials have been threatened and harassed for doing their jobs.

“Not that long ago, the number of people that I personally knew who’d received death threats was probably something that I could count on my hands. In recent years, too many times, I’ve found myself in rooms with election officials where the majority of the people in that room had had such an experience,” Hovland said.

Sen. Cheryl Kagan, the committee's vice chair, recommended accelerating when the bill would take effect, so it would be law in time for Maryland's May 14 primary.

“Colleagues, I think that’s something that, assuming we are moving this bill forward, I think that sooner is better than later, and this should be expedited and considered as emergency legislation,” Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, said.