COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Prospective voters caught with threatening a Columbus poll worker will now be slapped with a three-day jail sentence.
The Columbus City Council voted unanimously Monday evening to double down on criminalizing the harassment of the nearly 3,500 volunteers who run the city’s 199 polling locations, following the footsteps of neighboring cities who “have gone the extra mile” to protect poll workers who face heightened hostility across the U.S., Franklin County Board of Elections spokesperson Aaron Sellers said in an email.
“The execution of free and fair elections is an obligation for elected officials, but that will become increasingly challenging if residents fear that they will face harassment for their service,” the city’s ordinance reads.
Under the ordinance, sponsored by Councilmember Emmanuel V. Remy, anyone who threatens a poll worker is guilty of election interference, a first-degree misdemeanor, and is mandated to spend three days behind bars. Current state law permits poll workers to take civil action in the case of harassment, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
More than 75% of respondents in a March 2022 survey of nearly 600 election officials reported that threats against election administrators and staff have risen in recent years, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The report also found the following:
- The percent of respondents who said they are “very worried” about politicians interfering in future elections has nearly tripled since 2020
- More than three-fourths of local poll workers say social media companies haven’t done enough to stop false election information
- 1 in 6 poll workers reported being threatened personally, with more than half of those threats not reported to law enforcement
At Monday’s meeting, Remy cited reports of threats against poll workers at Salem Baptist Church on Sinclair Road. The danger it posed was “real,” he said, adding that the perpetrator threatened to come back and “harm those poll workers later in the day.”
“We know that poll workers, that can be thankless work, and especially during recent years, that political tension was and still is incredibly high,” Remy said.
While Sellers said no physical threats of violence have been reported against Franklin County election workers, the county’s board of elections makes “at least several” calls to law enforcement on Election Day due to activity that violates the city’s proposed ordinance.
Increased threats against election workers accompany hundreds of requests delivered to boards of elections across the U.S., including in Franklin County, seeking information pertaining to the results of the 2020 election, Sellers told NBC4 in September.
“One doesn’t like to see the questioning of the legitimacy of the electoral process,” Ohio State University emeritus political science professor Paul Beck told NBC4 in September, “because it can erode people’s faith in the quality of our elections and the freedom and fairness of our elections.”
Columbus’ poll worker protection ordinance comes about a month after Upper Arlington City Council passed a measure penalizing election official harassment on Sept. 6, according to the city’s code. Bexley City Council is considering a similar ordinance, its Sept. 27 city council agenda indicates.
“We are very appreciative of the support communities like Arlington and Columbus in this new local legislation to protect poll workers,” Sellers said.