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A poll worker helps a voter.

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A poll worker helps a voter at Driving Park Community Center during an Ohio primary election in Columbus, Ohio.

Our Democracy Is Only as Strong as Our Support for the Women Who Protect It

By Joanna Lydgate, President & Chief Executive Officer, States United Democracy Center
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As we get ready to renew the grand experiment of American democracy this November, women are leading the way. Women consistently vote at higher rates than men. And more women than ever — though still not enough — now serve in Congress, governor’s offices, and state legislatures.

Equally important to the smooth functioning of self-government, but much less recognized, are the thousands of local officials who conduct, defend, and secure our elections. Overwhelmingly, they, too, are women.

The work they do is Herculean. We talk about elections as national events, but in fact they’re conducted by more than 10,000 local jurisdictions. Before a single person casts a ballot, dedicated professionals put in months of preparation to make sure voting in their states and communities will be smooth, safe, and secure. After the polls close, they meticulously count, certify, and audit the results — and, if necessary, defend them in court. More than 80 percent of the local election officials who do this work are women.

More than 80% of local election officials are women.

I see their commitment firsthand in my role as CEO of the States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan organization that works directly with state and local election officials and on their behalf.

We help these officials defend accurate election results in court. We help connect them with law enforcement leaders — and offer resources to those law enforcement leaders — to keep elections and voters safe. We equip election officials with tools to fight disinformation and promote the facts. And we make sure those who undermine our democracy are held accountable.

This is the work of supporting free and fair elections. It’s also the work of supporting women. In this job, I’m constantly reminded that they are the same goal.

Americans overwhelmingly believe it’s more important that we count every legal vote than that their preferred candidate win. That is the creed of our democracy, but the words would be empty without the service of so many women whose stories most of us never hear.

"This is the work of supporting free and fair elections. It's also the work of supporting women. In this job, I'm constantly reminded that they are the same goal."

Portrait of Joanna Lydgate, President & Chief Executive Officer of States United Democracy Center
Joanna Lydgate
President & Chief Executive Officer, States United Democracy Center

I think of Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s chief election official. In December 2020, she was hanging Christmas decorations with her young son when armed protesters showed up at her house, chanting and screaming because they didn’t like the results of the free and fair election she had just overseen. In the years since, Benson has been a fearless advocate for the people who protect democracy. Under her leadership, Michigan elections have climbed from 31st in the country for election administration performance to second, according to the MIT Election Data and Science Lab’s Elections Performance Index rankings. Two months ago, during a presidential primary, Benson oversaw her state’s first-ever in-person early voting.

I think of Kris Mayes, the former journalist and consumer advocate now serving as attorney general of Arizona. As a former deputy state attorney general myself, her work as the people’s lawyer is close to my heart. Shortly after taking office last year, Mayes took a state investigative unit dedicated to voter fraud and repurposed it to defend access to the ballot. She understands that we have protections in place to deal with extremely rare cases of voter fraud, and that accusations of fraud are mostly a scare tactic used to undermine elections and intimidate voters.

And I think of Kim Wyman, a Republican who was elected three times as secretary of state of Washington. She oversaw that state’s free and fair elections, winning bipartisan respect for her integrity and expertise, then joined the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to help local election officials secure their systems against foreign and cyber threats.

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  • Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks during a press conference in Detroit, MI

    Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

    Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks during a press conference in Detroit, MI.

  • A woman makes a sign to direct voters at a polling place.

    Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

    A women directs voters at a polling place in Columbus, Ohio.

  • Kris Mayes, Arizona's Attorney General, speaks at a Women's March rally in Phoenix, AZ.

    Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Kris Mayes, Arizona's Attorney General, speaks at a Women's March rally in Phoenix, AZ.

  • A woman hands an "I voted" sticker to a voter at a polling place.

    Photo by Elaine Cromie/Getty Images.

    A poll worker hands a sticker to a voter after voting at the Ferndale Public Library in Ferndale, Michigan.

  • Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman speaks at a hearing on threats to election workers.

    Photo from C-SPAN

    Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman speaks at a hearing on threats to election workers.

The thousands of women who conduct our elections face challenges of overwork, stress, and low pay. Harassment, threats, and abuse are all too common. Still, a Reed College survey last year found that these officials take great personal satisfaction in their work. That may be because, even at this time of eroding faith in institutions, trust in elections is highest at the local level.

American elections also require as many as a million temporary election workers, many of them volunteers. Think of the people who hand you a ballot on your way into the voting booth and a sticker on the way out. Here, too, women outnumber men — roughly two to one, according to a Brookings Institution survey. These are democracy’s frontline heroes: Elections simply couldn’t happen without them. Too often in recent years, they have been repaid with harassment and threats. Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, mother and daughter Georgia election workers, were driven into hiding when they became the subjects of vicious conspiracy theories during the 2020 election. They won a landmark defamation award, but their lives will never be the same.

42% of women in public office report being harassed, compared with 28% of men. Source: Civic Pulse, 2022

These are the women doing the invisible work of democracy. They do it because it has to be done: Without their service, we couldn’t elect a president or a county council. These women ask for nothing in return, but we can honor them by doing our part.

We can protect election workers. We can promote truth in our elections. We can defend the will of the people. It’s work we’re honored to do at States United Democracy Center, an organization whose leadership team is all women.

So much about this election year is uncertain, but we can say this much for sure: Women will make this election happen, they will make sure it’s fair and secure, and they will make us proud.

Pivotal is proud to support the States United Democracy Center in its work to safeguard democracy and advance women’s political power.

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