Erik Thurston prepares ballots from a drop box for the...

Erik Thurston prepares ballots from a drop box for the sorting machines on Election Day at the King County Elections headquarters, Nov. 7, 2023, in Renton, Wash. The Washington state Senate has voted Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 to make harassing election workers a felony. The decision comes three months after several county election offices received envelopes containing suspicious powders and had to be evacuated. Credit: AP/Lindsey Wasson

SEATTLE — The Washington state Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to make harassing election workers a felony, three months after four county election offices received envelopes containing suspicious powder — including three testing positive for fentanyl — and had to be evacuated.

“This cannot be something we take as normal," Democratic Sen. Manka Dhingra said during the vote. "We have to make sure that our election workers are protected, that people who participate and engage in our democracy have faith that the system works well and that we don’t have bad actors that can actually disrupt vote counts.”

The bill is among a wave of legislation across the U.S. seeking to boost protections for these workers in the lead-up to the 2024 election amid an increasing number of threats some attribute to false claims by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 election was stolen.

Twenty-three states are considering bills addressing protections, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen. In Maryland, for example, lawmakers are considering legislation to enable authorities to prosecute people who threaten to harm election officials or their immediate family members.

The bill in Washington would increase the possible penalty for harassing an election worker in person or by mail from up to one year in jail to up to five years in prison. It would also give targeted workers the opportunity to join a program run by the secretary of state's office designed to keep their address confidential.

The measure has already been approved by the House but will need to go back to that body for verification before heading to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. Mike Faulk, spokesperson for the Democratic governor, said in an email that they haven’t reviewed the bill in detail but that Inslee is “generally supportive of efforts to protect our democratic process and the people who carry it out.”

Some Republican lawmakers pushed for the bill to include protections for election observers and people gathering initiative signatures.

“They are physically, I would say, unprotected,” Republican Sen. Keith Wagoner said during a vote on an amendment to protect people collecting signatures. "They’re not inside impressive looking buildings like some of our elected election folks are. They don’t have access to security, but they are vulnerable.”

The amendments were voted down, with Dhingra explaining that individuals collecting signatures are already protected under a harassment statute.

The legislation comes two years after the state made online harassment of an election worker a felony. Democratic Rep. Mari Leavitt, sponsor of the latest bill, said it will better align the punishment for in-person and virtual threats.

“Our election workers are unsung heroes,” she told The Associated Press. “They’re workers of democracy and we need to demonstrate to them that we value them and we want them to show up to work and feel safe, and this is one method to be able to do that.”

In November, four county elections offices in Washington were evacuated the day after election day after receiving envelopes with powder and a message that said, “End elections now.” Three tested positive for fentanyl, according to a spokesperson for the Washington secretary of state.

Linda Farmer, auditor for Pierce County, where one of the elections offices was evacuated, said she remembers over 100 workers being evacuated that morning and hazmat teams along with the FBI and fire department swarming the area, while paramedics made sure the staff member who opened the letter was safe.

“It was terrifying,” she said. “I was nauseous and really scared for the staffer who had opened the letter, but I put on a brave face for the staff.”

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