For second time, Washington House backs tougher penalties for threatening election workers

Washington lawmakers renewed their push in the Legislature Jan. 11  to increase criminal penalties for harassment of election workers.

The state House of Representatives, on an 86-11 vote, approved House Bill 1241 to make it a class C felony for a person to threaten election officials with injury through words or conduct. Today, such behavior carries a lesser penalty of a gross misdemeanor.

The same bill cleared the House on a 90-7 vote last session but lapsed in the Senate. It is expected to receive a hearing in the Senate in early February.

“Our election workers are the heroes of democracy,” said Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, the bill’s prime sponsor, in a floor speech.

Leavitt recalled several counties halted ballot counting following the most recent election when envelopes containing an unknown white power arrived in their election offices. Initial tests found traces of fentanyl on envelopes received in at least two, according to news reports.

“The recent rash of threats against election workers should concern all of us,” she said.

In addition to stiffer penalties, the bill allows election officials and family members living with them to enroll in the state’s address confidentiality program.

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen voted against the bill. He said no one in Washington should be harassed but he disagreed with making the crime a felony when the penalty for possession of fentanyl is a gross misdemeanor. It should be a felony, he said.

Walsh, who is also chair of the Washington State Republican Party, said the issue of election worker harassment is getting politicized across the ideological spectrum.

“Some of us on this floor right now are on lists kept by government agencies of words that are perceived as harassing or threatening of election workers or election processes,” he said. “We need to tread very carefully when we get in the business of weaponizing speech or weaponizing the government’s reaction to speech.”

Secretary of State Steve Hobbs watched Thursday’s vote from the House wings. He said this bill represents a proactive move on workers’ behalf ahead of what will be a heated 2024 election season.

County auditors strongly back the legislation.

“We’re pleased to see it is on its way to the Senate,” said Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell. “It’s a good bill that will make the work environment safer for election workers.”

A 2022 law dealing with cyberstalking enhanced penalties for those convicted of using the internet to harass election workers while they are doing their jobs.

That law, like the one passed Thursday, made such behavior a class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine. It had been a gross misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

— By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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