Over the past eighteen months, we have been working closely with Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative, the Brennan Center for Justice, and a range of other partners to regularly track the frequency by which local government elected officials face insults, threats, harassment, and physical attacks while serving their communities. Additionally, we have been tracking the impact of these events and the measures local governments are taking to safeguard their representatives.
The results of our latest survey continue to reveal a concerning trend. While there has been a marginal decrease in threats, harassment, and physical attacks since their peak in the October 2023 survey, the frequency remains relatively steady at unacceptably high levels.
A Chilling Effect on Democracy
In this quarter’s update, we are releasing the first set of findings concerning the impact these experiences are having on local elected officials. The data reveal that these experiences have had both immediate and long-term consequences.
“As a member of the community, it is hard to not want to defend yourself or your position but there isn't a forum to do so. Every approach seems to bring about more hostility.” - City government official in MN
One immediate consequence of hostility towards local elected officials is reduced engagement with their constituents. More than half (55%) of local elected officials report having refrained from posting on social media due to concerns about their safety. This may not be surprising as hostile experiences disproportionately occur or start on social media. But the consequences go beyond the online environment. Local elected officials report that hostility is impacting their willingness to engage in controversial topics, participate in public events, and even be in public when not working. A hostile political environment is putting local elected officials in the difficult place of having to choose between their own safety and connecting with their constituents.
Longer-term, these experiences are understandably shaping what local officials feel able to stomach going forward. Most importantly, a significant portion admitted that these incidents have influenced their decisions to either run for re-election (40%) or pursue another/higher office (39%). This is particularly concerning, given that local elected officials who identify as gender or racial/ethnic minorities are disproportionately likely to experience these events, raising the concern that this could exacerbate the existing problems of demographic underrepresentation.
“All of the crap going on in the town I serve, with so many people trash talking everything, has made me re-consider my desire to serve for free, as a volunteer, on my city council.” - City government official in TX
Local Governments Respond
However, not all local governments are standing by. Many have taken measures to address the safety concerns of their elected officials. One-in-four have increased security for government buildings, as well as heightened security for public board meetings. Some local governments are also including restricted access to the personal contact information of local elected officials (7%) and recordings or transcripts of board meetings (3%). Other actions include de-escalation training (8%) and revised rules for comment periods at public meetings (22%). However, 59% of local governments have not taken any action to combat this issue.
The prevalence of threats and harassment poses a pervasive challenge for local elected officials, significantly impacting their ability to govern effectively. Not only are such experiences constraining the avenues by which officials feel comfortable engaging with constituents, they are also compromising willingness to serve in the first place.
While some local governments are taking proactive measures to address these issues, the question remains whether these efforts will be sufficient to create a safer and more conducive environment for local elected officials. Other interventions may promote public safety but increase barriers to democratic participation. It will be important to continue to track how these measures are or are not working as 2024 unfolds.
The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random-sample of over 2,000 elected policymakers from local governments (i.e., township, municipality, and county governments) with a population of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Bridging Divides Initiative and was implemented by CivicPulse.
Below is the question wording for the survey items that were used:
In your capacity as a public official, please indicate whether you have experienced any of the following types of incidents in the last three months or so. If you have held your office for less time than that, please answer for the amount of time you have held your position. If appropriate, you may select ‘Yes’ to multiple items for the same experience.
In the last three months or so, have you been...
Insulted verbally, in writing, or online
Harassed verbally, in writing, or online
Threatened verbally, in writing, or online
To what extent have concerns about insults, harassment, threats, or attacks negatively impacted your willingness to do each of the following:
Run for re-election
Run for another/higher office
Work on controversial topics
Participate in events in public spaces
Post on social media
Be in public spaces when not working
Not at all
Below we list a range of possible actions that local governments could take to address concerns about the potential for threats, harassment, or attacks against local elected officials. Please select which of these actions—to the best of your knowledge—your government has taken in the last twelve months or so.
Increased security for government building(s) in which local elected officials work
Increased security for local elected officials’ residences
Increased security for public board meetings
Increased security for transportation for local elected officials
Stricter access to personal contact information of local elected officials
Stricter access to recordings or transcripts of board meetings
Posted or revised rules for comment periods at public meetings
Offered de-escalation training or related support to local elected officials or staff
Added a mediator or trained facilitator to public meetings
Made a public statement to address concerns
Nathan Lee, PhD
Managing Director of CivicPulse