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How police officers and election officials can collaborate for a safe election season

Follow these five steps to ensure the safety of election administrators and voters

Voter Intimidation New York

Law enforcement should invest time ahead of the election to strengthen relationships with election officials.

John Minchillo/AP

By Chris Harvey

When I was in the DeKalb County (Georgia) Police Academy in early 1995, one of the first lessons I learned was an instructor telling us, “If you want people to like you, you need to go down the street and join the fire department.” Most of us chuckled, but nobody gathered their things and left the room to leave.

From May of 1995 until June of 2015, I wore a badge and gun to work every day. One of the first cases I worked as a homicide detective was the murder of a county sheriff-elect by the incumbent. However, even the scrutiny of this high-profile case was insufficient preparation for what I would face as Georgia Elections Director under then-Secretary of State (now Governor) Brian Kemp and Secretary Brad Raffensperger. I served in this role from 2015 to 2021, during some of the most contentious elections in recent Georgia history, before assuming my current role as Deputy Director of Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.) Council.

When people ask me the difference between law enforcement and election administration, I say, “The main difference is that when working homicides, I occasionally came across people who had remorse for what they had done.” Law enforcement and election officials share more in common than many realize. In most cases, someone is going to be unhappy about the actions they have taken. Neither is likely to be universally hailed without someone second-guessing or criticizing their actions. And both are local public servants.

As we enter the 2024 presidential election season, both communities are under fire. In the case of law enforcement officers, the gunfire is literal. According to the National Fraternal Order of Police, 2023 set a record for officers being shot, and 2024 is on pace to set a new record. The news for election officials, while not as stark as being gunned-down, is moving in a similarly dark direction. According to a recent survey conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, 38% of local election officials experienced threats, harassment, or abuse simply for doing their jobs.

But there is reason to trust that election officials and law enforcement are better prepared to handle threats to election workers during the 2024 election cycle. Importantly, law enforcement and election officials are taking steps to better coordinate and communicate. This alone will help law enforcement plan better for the presidential election — akin to the Super Bowl for election officials — which is critical to increasing safety while avoiding concerns of voter intimidation.

A couple of years ago, my experience and my belief in both our law enforcement officers and our election officials led me to join the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections (CSSE). The Committee is a group of law enforcement and election officials working together to build relationships and trust between election officials and law enforcement to better equip both to prevent and respond to threats and violence against voters and election workers.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the presence of armed officers in polling places. This is a sensitive issue and one that should be handled with the seriousness that it deserves. Rather, here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned about how police officers and election officials can work together for a safer future:

Meet

Election officials and law enforcement officers have distinct operating protocols for following and executing state and federal laws. Meeting before the election — which actually starts at least 45 days before Election Day when military and overseas ballots are mailed — will help each of you understand the others procedures and learn how to work together. In addition, because different communities have different perspectives on law enforcement, you should convene meetings with local community stakeholders to discuss the goals of cooperation and the boundaries.

Share

At your kickoff meeting, encourage election officials to share information that will be critical in your efforts. Some key examples include important locations and dates on the election calendar, any history of threats toward election officials or voter intimidation, contact information for key staff and liaisons, and each institution’s expectations and boundaries. As each state has different laws that apply to elections, it’s helpful to review those. CSSE has state-specific Law Enforcement Quick References that may be helpful. For example, California, Georgia, and Utah.

Sheriff (ret.) Paul Penzone and Chief Chris Davis share their experiences and strategies for creating a secure voting environment amid varying local laws and threat landscapes

Agree

The institutions of law enforcement and election administration both rely on established procedures and training to handle complex scenarios. Creating an agreed-upon set of routine security protocols and rules of engagement (ROE) is therefore a natural way to structure your relationship. Ask the election office to define the assistance they need from your agency in terms of routine security support, security communications, and incident response. This template Memorandum of Understanding can serve as a useful guide.

Plan

The above measures are significant deterrents to disruptive or threatening activity that do not require armed officers at polling places. Still, planning for such activity is essential just in case it does occur. We recommend holding a specific meeting to plan out the response to incidents. You can find an entire agenda for that meeting produced by CSSE.

Practice

Finally, you should practice applying the security plan in realistic scenarios. Law enforcement agencies are familiar, and election offices increasingly so, with tabletop exercises, a method for putting participants into a security scenario to test the security plan, reinforce understanding of it, and strengthen adherence to it.

These five steps are common sense for those of us who have served in law enforcement. They are, however, becoming essential to the safety of election administrators and voters.

During National Police Week last month, we rightfully celebrated the hundreds of thousands of men and women who literally put their bodies between the public and danger. Today, there’s another group of local public servants increasingly facing harassment, threats and even physical violence. We would be wise to recognize the environment election officials are working in, and invest time now, ahead of the election, to strengthen our relationships with them, and work collaboratively to protect them, voters and our election infrastructure.

About the author
Chris Harvey has served as Deputy Director of the Georgia Peace Officers Standards and Training Council (POST) since 2021. He began his law enforcement career as a DeKalb County Police Officer in 1995. Over the next two decades, Chris served terms as the Chief Investigator for the DeKalb County DA Office, the Director of the Cold Case Homicide Squad for the Fulton County DA Office, and the Chief Investigator for the Secretary of State’s Office. In 2015, he was appointed State Elections Director for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, working in this role until 2021.

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