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Election workers face flood of threats, but charges are few

ALISHA JUCEVIC / NEW YORK TIMES / NOV. 9, 2022
                                Maricopa County Elections Center workers process ballots in Phoenix in 2022. Seeing the problem as a threat to the smooth functioning of the democratic system, the Justice Department stepped up its efforts to find and charge those making threats against election workers.
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ALISHA JUCEVIC / NEW YORK TIMES / NOV. 9, 2022

Maricopa County Elections Center workers process ballots in Phoenix in 2022. Seeing the problem as a threat to the smooth functioning of the democratic system, the Justice Department stepped up its efforts to find and charge those making threats against election workers.

WASHINGTON >> One week after the 2020 presidential election, Tina Barton, who as the clerk of Rochester Hills, Michigan, oversaw voting there, sat down at her desk, coffee in hand, and listened to her voicemail messages.

The first one, she recalled, made every muscle in her body tense and left her hands shaking: A man who did not give his name made a series of profanity-laden threats and told her that people were coming for her and her family and that she deserved a knife to her throat.

Barton, whose town is part of Oakland County, which voted for President Joe Biden in 2020, immediately shared the message with the county sheriff. Then she spent nearly three years wondering, wherever she went — grocery shopping, church, community events — whether the caller would make good on his threat and come to kill her. Only last summer, when federal authorities charged the caller, did she learn his identity and begin to feel some sense of relief.

Barton is one of thousands of election workers who have received threats since the 2020 election, a trend fueled by former President Donald Trump’s continued baseless assertions about election fraud and what experts say is a broader distrust of institutions and authority.

Among election workers, a once largely low-profile community, fear and anxiety are now common. A significant number have quit.

Seeing the problem as a threat to the smooth functioning of the democratic system, the Justice Department stepped up its efforts to find and charge those making threats, establishing a task force in the summer of 2021 to help local officials, offer assistance and prioritize prosecutions.

“Our democracy cannot function if the public servants who administer our elections fear for their lives just for doing their jobs,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement to The New York Times.

Threats to public officials are up across the board. While judges and lawmakers have received threats for decades, they’re getting more of them now. Election workers, however, have only recently become the focus of vitriolic threats and harassment, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

But investigations into such threats have often moved slowly, leaving election workers unnerved, and relatively few cases end up being charged, in part because many threatening messages are protected by the First Amendment.

“The biggest challenge election officials had prior to 2020 was anonymity — getting people to understand what they did, getting people to volunteer to be poll workers,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that works with election administrators.

Those administrators never would have imagined then that people would be troubled enough to threaten them, Becker said, and yet it has become an epidemic.

The creation of the federal task force initially relieved election workers who hoped criminal cases would deter future threats heading into the 2024 election, which will likely pit the same two candidates against each other.

The Justice Department says it is aggressively pursuing investigations into these threats. Since the task force was created, election workers have relayed more than 2,000 threats to the FBI, which has opened about 100 investigations. Nineteen people have been charged. Of those, 13 have been convicted, with sentences ranging from probation to more than three years in prison; one person was acquitted; and other cases are ongoing.

The threats are delivered by email, phone calls and voicemail; on social media; and, in some cases, in fentanyl-laced letters. They are not just fired off around key election dates. People all over the country are being threatened, some more often than others.

Some of the recipients see the Justice Department as not being aggressive enough in its prosecutions. The threats continue to come in, fueled by misinformation about the outcome of the 2020 election and a growing distrust in government and institutions.

“There hasn’t been the accountability necessary to hold those accountable who threaten election workers,” said Barb Byrum, the clerk in Ingham County, Michigan.

But only a small percent of the threats meet the level for prosecution. Most are deemed political speech and are protected by the First Amendment. Investigations into the threats that are illegal tend to move at the speed of federal prosecutions, which can take years.

“There’s a level of sophisticated ambiguity here, in what actually constitutes a threat under the law,” said Tammy Patrick, a former federal compliance officer for the election department in Maricopa County, Arizona, who is now senior adviser to the elections program at the Democracy Fund, a nonprofit that provides grants to organizations that promote democracy and government accountability.

“But that does not in any way undermine or undercut the terror that those types of threats can result in,” she added.

The legal obstacles, she said, leave election workers “screaming into the void or shouting for help and not sure if anyone’s hearing them.”

It took some time for election officials to figure out what they could realistically expect from the Justice Department, said Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors. One hundred investigations out of more than 2,000 threat referrals, she said, “is not exactly encouraging from

In addition to prosecutions, the task force also launched an outreach campaign to state and local election officials — hundreds of thousands of civil servants and volunteers spread across more than 10,000 jurisdictions — telling them to report any threats to their local FBI offices.

A prosecutor now travels weekly to talk to election workers about how to protect themselves and report threats. Groups representing election workers have stepped up their focus, too, holding more exercises, establishing lines of communication with local law enforcement and requesting free security risk assessments by the federal cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency.

Some states have also moved to pass new laws or strengthen existing ones.

“There’s a common denominator in many of these cases: election denialists announcing an intent to violently punish those who they believe have wronged them,” Gary Restaino, the U.S. attorney in Arizona, told reporters last month when he announced that a judge had sentenced an Ohio man, Joshua Russell, 46, to 30 months in prison for sending death threats to Katie Hobbs, then Arizona’s secretary of state, between August and November 2022.

In an apology letter to Hobbs, now the Arizona governor, Russell, from Bucyrus, Ohio, said he had been acting on disinformation he had consumed without vetting its accuracy.

“I started calling public officials whom I found disgusting,” he wrote to Hobbs. After the FBI raided his home and charged him, he said, “I’ve never felt so foolish and ashamed.”

Perhaps the best-known example of disinformation leading to threats is what happened to two Georgia election workers, Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, after Election Day 2020. Rudy Giuliani, who at the time was Trump’s personal lawyer, publicly accused the women of participating in election fraud, leading to a torrent of threats against them. (The women won a defamation suit against Giuliani last year, with the jury finding that he should pay $148 million in damages, which sent him directly to bankruptcy court.)

Just one of the more than 400 threats Freeman received resulted in a prosecution, according to a person familiar with the case. The defendant, Chad Christopher Stark, 55, of Leander, Texas, was charged with threatening another Georgia official as well and received a two-year prison sentence.

Of the 17 federal cases brought by the Justice Department, three involved threats against Stephen Richer, the recorder of Maricopa County.

“We get stuff every single day,” Richer said. He cited examples including “You know where traitors should go,” and “Can’t wait to see you in gitmo,” referring to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

The threats are not timed around election dates, he said. They also come in when his office posts on social media or sends an email blast to voters.

“Every single day we live with this,” he said.

The regularity of these threats has helped his office and others prepare for November.

Officials at the Justice Department feel better prepared as well, said Kenneth Polite, the former head of the department’s criminal division. He recalled that on Election Day in 2022, he and Garland walked across the street to the FBI headquarters to sit in what he described as a war room of sorts, set up to respond to threats against election officials.

Had such an operation been in place in 2020, the case against the man who threatened Barton, the Rochester Hills, Michigan, clerk, might have been opened sooner.

When Barton first saw the man who threatened her, Andrew Nickels, a 37-year-old from Carmel, Indiana, at his arraignment last summer, she said he looked like a normal guy.

“Passing on the street, he wouldn’t have caught my eye as looking as a threat,” she said.

Nickels’ lawyer, Steven Scharg, said his client had no previous record and never intended his threat to go this far. Nickels pleaded guilty in February and is scheduled to be sentenced in July.

Barton is now a senior elections expert with the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, a group that helps to support election workers across the country and connect them to law enforcement. It’s one of several nongovernment groups that have stepped up efforts since the 2020 elections.

Harassment and threats have “become very commonplace for them,” she said. “It’s almost become this, ‘Well, you have to accept that because that’s what’s happening in our world now. That’s the way people talk to each other.’”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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