A bill that would criminalize intimidating election workers is advancing in the Senate — with requests that it be amended to add equal protections for poll observers some say are in part responsible for the harassment.
The measure (SB 562) would make it illegal to harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce an election worker with the intent to impede or interfere with their official duties or to retaliate against them for doing so.
First-time offenders would face a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and $1,000 in fines.
“This bill is a safeguard of the integrity of the election process by deterring and penalizing harassment against those individuals involved in its administration,” said its sponsor, St. Petersburg Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson. “The most critical component of our republic is the right to vote. We protect voters. Certainly, we should protect those who administer the elections process.”
Rouson’s peers on the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee agreed Monday, voting unanimously to send his bill to the second of three panels it must pass through before reaching the Senate floor.
So did three Supervisors of Election who spoke to the committee in favor of the bill.
Mark Earley, the Supervisor of Elections for Leon County, noted that Florida is seeing an unprecedented level of turnover among election officials. Since 2020, he said, 34 of the people who held his title in Florida’s 67 counties either quit or forwent re-election, and thousands of their employees left as well.
He said he and his staff receive “many calls” in which people use “vile, abusive language” while accusing them of committing fraud. At a time when lawmakers are “pushing people to vote in person (and) tightening up the procedures around vote-by-mail,” he said, it only makes sense to protect the workers facilitating the process.
Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Wendy Sartory Link said rising tensions in recent elections have made polling places more hostile environments that have led to many election workers quitting. That, in turn, reduces the year-to-year experience of election staff, which results in a greater propensity for errors.
In Palm Beach alone, she said, her office has had to replace and train 2,961 election worker positions since Jan. 1, 2022.
“We’ve had a number of people in our temporary workers who just … call us and say, ‘I’m not coming back. This isn’t worth it,’” she said. “A lot of our workers are older (and) not really trained … as a lot of our law enforcement officers are (to) deal with potential harassment. They’re not equipped for this.”
Wakulla County Supervisor of Elections Alan Hayes, a former Republican state Senator, said that while Florida’s election administration systems are a “model for the nation,” there is an unfortunate need for SB 562. Around the state, he said, people “harass the dickens” out of poll workers, follow them out of the office, take pictures of them, their vehicles and license plates, and sometimes threaten them.
“You will hear there are already statutes on the books that protect people from harassment,” he said. “We need election workers specifically listed among those that are protected, and that’s what this bill does.”
Several Republican members of the committee argued there is also a need to codify protections for poll watchers — people who observe the election process at a voting site, frequently at the behest of a candidate, political party or political committee — and asked Rouson to amend his measure to include them.
The GOP-dominated Legislature passed a law in 2021 that included a provision allowing one partisan poll watcher per candidate on the ballot during the inspection of votes. Critics at the time said the measure could overcrowd election officials and complained the bill did not stipulate the distance poll watchers must keep from election workers.
Melbourne Sen. Debbie Mayfield said the majority of calls her office received came from people opposed to the measure because they feared it could be used to stifle objections poll watchers might have with election workers’ conduct.
“They’re concerned they would be considered harassment if they were to question anything,” she said. “My thought was (we should make) them part of (this so) they are also protected.”
Spring Hill Sen. Blaise Ingoglia and Zephyrhills Sen. Danny Burgess, the committee Chair, echoed Mayfield’s request. Ingoglia said he heard “numerous instances of poll watchers being harassed.”
The group reportedly asked to meet with Ingoglia, who advocated for including poll watcher protections in the bill, which Burgess later amended to remove safeguards for election workers.
Asked by Fort Myers Republican Sen. Jonathan Martin for his opinion on SB 562, Hayes said that while he and other Elections Supervisors oppose any harassment where voters participate in the democratic process, Florida law expressly forbids poll watchers from speaking to anyone at a polling site except the clerk and assistant clerk(s).
“So, a poll watcher has no business talking to a voter. They have no business talking to one of the staff workers at the polling place,” Hayes said. “The poll watcher, by statute, is authorized only to speak to the clerk, and as long as they’re speaking in a respectful way, I’m sure it wouldn’t be interpreted as harassment.”
Hayes added that while he had “not heard of any instances of poll watchers being harassed,” he had personally “revoked the privileges of being a poll watcher of two people because of their behavior.”
A pair of election workers-turned-poll watchers objected to the bill outright, which they said could be “weaponized” to clamp down on potential whistleblowers.
One was Dianne Warner of Santa Rosa, who in December 2022 called for an investigation into the county’s election integrity and the use of EViD voting machines despite admitting to having seen “nothing nefarious” during that year’s Midterm.
Warner, who expressed reservations about the 2020 election, rejected the idea poll workers need protections because she’d never felt threatened while doing the job.
“I feel like we circle the wagons if anybody comes in and they have issues,” she said. “We don’t need to add more … I don’t want to turn Florida into a police state.”
LaDonna Wagers, whose LinkedIn page says she works for the Florida Department of State, said intimidation, harassment and other forcefully uncouth behavior is already prohibited under state law and that election workers don’t deserve special protections.
She also complained that “despite strong grassroots advocacy,” election security bills such as SB 1602 and SB 1752, which respectively would crack down on noncitizen voting and ban the use of certain voting machines, have “lackluster support” among Senate leadership.
Boca Raton Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky pointed out that by opposing anti-harassment legislation both lawmakers and Supervisors of Elections say is needed, opponents of the bill are essentially advocating for harassment.
“I’ve seen some pretty bad behavior myself at polling locations,” she said. “If we want more people to go to the polls and not use vote-by-mail, then we have to protect those polls.”
Rouson said he’d look into changing his bill to protect poll watchers or add language making clear that election officials raising concerns about problems in the process wouldn’t face retaliation.
Florida’s “Voter Protection Act” bars any person from directly or indirectly using threats of force, violence or intimidation to compel another person to vote or refrain from voting or refrain from acting as a legally authorized elected official or poll watcher.
First-time violators face a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.
According to a November poll commissioned by the Secure Democracy Foundation, three-quarters of Florida voters trust their local election officials and nearly as many (73%) trust their county Supervisor.
Party affiliation made little difference.
An identical House companion (HB 721) to Rouson’s bill by Boynton Beach Democratic Rep. Joe Casello has cleared the first of three committee hearings it must pass before reaching a full vote by the chamber.