More than a dozen people have been charged with threatening election workers nationally by a Justice Department unit trying to stem a wave of violent and graphic threats against those counting and securing votes.
Secretaries of state and experts have warned that threats are being made to government employees even during the usually quiet period between elections. Some say former President Donald Trump and his allies are repeatedly falsely claiming that the 2020 election was stolen and spreading conspiracy theories about election workers. Experts fear the 2024 election could be worse and want the federal government to do more to protect election workers.
The Justice Department created the Election Threat Task Force in 2021, led by its Public Integrity Section, which investigates election crimes. John Keller, the unit’s second in command, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the department hopes its prosecution will deter others from threatening election workers.
“It will not be taken lightly. It will not be trivialised,” he said. “Federal Judge, the courts are taking misconduct seriously and punishments will be commensurate with the seriousness of the conduct.”
Two more people were indicted Thursday in separate cases of threatening election workers in Arizona and Georgia. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department would continue the investigation, adding that “a functioning democracy requires that the public servants who administer our elections be able to do their jobs without fear of their lives.”
The unit has filed 14 cases and two have resulted in sentences of years in prison, including a 2 1/2-year sentence Monday for Mark Rissi, an Iowa man accused of “lynch” an Arizona election official and He was accused of leaving a message threatening to “hang”. , His attorney, Anthony Knowles, said he was “inundated with misinformation” and now “feels terrible” about the messages he left.
A Texas man was sentenced earlier this month to 3 1/2 years in prison after suggesting “the mass shootings of poll workers and election officials” last year, the charges say. In a message the Justice Department said, the person wrote: “Somebody needs to get these people and their kids. Kids are the most important message to send.” His attorney did not respond to a message seeking comment.
An indictment unveiled in August was against a man accused of leaving profanity-filled voicemails for Tina Barton, a Republican who was formerly a clerk in Rochester Hills, Michigan, outside Detroit, after the 2020 election . According to the indictment, the man swore that “when you least expect it, more than a million patriots will surround you” and “we… will kill you.”
Barton said it was one of several threats she felt very concerned about.
“I really hope the allegations send a strong message and we will not find ourselves in the same position after the next election,” he said.
Normally, the period between elections is quiet for the activists who run voting systems across America, but for many, that is no longer true, said Colorado Secretary of State Jenna Griswold, a Democrat, who has launched conspiracy theories around the elections. insisted against the principles, said.
“I expect it to get worse with the presidential election later this year and next year,” Griswold said.
Griswold said the threats come in “waves,” usually following social media posts by prominent figures about false claims of theft in the 2020 election or blog posts on far-right websites. While the country is more aware of the dangers to election workers, he worries that there have not been enough prosecutions and that states have not done enough to protect workers.
“Do we have the best equipment to get through the next period? Absolutely not,” Griswold said.
Election officials say thousands of threats have been made across the country, yet relatively few have been prosecuted. They say they understand the high threshold of actually prosecuting a case but a lot more can be done.
Liz Howard, a former Virginia elections official who is now in the Brennan Center for Justice’s election and government program, called on the Justice Department to hire a senior consultant with existing relationships with election officials to improve outreach.
According to a Brennan Center survey published in April, nearly 1 in 5 election workers know someone who has left their election job for security reasons and 73% of local election officials said harassment has increased.
The task force has reviewed more than 2,000 reports of threats and harassment across the country since its inception, although most of those cases have not led to charges from prosecutors that meet the high legal bar set by the Supreme Court for criminal prosecution. Point to the bar. Communication should be considered a “true threat” that crosses the threshold of serious intent to injure someone, Keller said, to constitute a potential offense rather than free speech.
“The actions we are taking from a law enforcement perspective are not criminalizing or explicitly discouraging free speech,” he added.
The task force’s work comes at a time when Trump and other Republicans have accused the Biden administration of using the Justice Department to target political opponents, although the task force has not been publicly targeted by Republicans. Is.
Several GOP leaders have sharply criticized federal prosecutions of Trump and the rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and Trump himself faces a federal indictment in Washington, D.C., and one in Georgia for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The states are facing prosecution. Result. He has denied wrongdoing and said he was acting within the law. A series of federal and state investigations and dozens of lawsuits have found no evidence that the election was rigged.
Trump is the frontrunner for the GOP nomination for president in 2024 and has been arguing in his speeches and online posts that the 2020 election was rigged.
For many election workers, intimidation has been a major driving factor in leaving the job they will experience before 2024, said Dokhi Fashihian, deputy head of strategy and programs at Issue One, a nonpartisan reform group representing election officials. hollowing out the level of ,
A Brennan Center survey found that nearly 1 in 5 election officials in 2024 will begin serving after the 2020 election.
“Many people are deciding that it is not worth living there,” Fashihian said.