More than a dozen people nationwide have been charged with threatening election workers by a Justice Department unit that was trying to stem the tide of violent and explicit threats against the people who matter and get the vote. vote.
Government workers are bombarded with threats even in the normally quiet periods between elections, state secretaries and experts warn. Some point out that Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly and falsely claimed that the 2020 election was stolen and spread conspiracy theories about election workers. Experts fear the 2024 election will be worse and want the Justice Department to do more to protect election workers.
The Justice Department had in 2021 created a task force 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.
“This is not going to be taken lightly. It’s not going to be trivialized,” he said. “Federal judges, the courts take misconduct seriously and the penalties will be commensurate with the seriousness of the conduct. »
More people are expected to plead guilty on Thursday to threatening election workers in Arizona and Georgia.
The unit filed 14 cases and two resulted in multi-year prison sentences, including a two-and-a-half-year sentence for an Iowa man accused of leaving a message threatening to “lynch” and ” suspend” an election in Arizona. official.
A Texas man was sentenced to three and a half years in prison this month after suggesting a “mass shooting of poll workers and election officials” last year, according to the charges. In a message, the Justice Department said, the man wrote, “Someone needs to catch these people AND their children. Children are the most important message to send.
Lawyers for the two men did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
An indictment uncovered in August relates to a man accused of leaving a profanity-filled voicemail after the 2020 election for Tina Barton, a Republican who previously served as a clerk in Rochester Hills, Michigan, outside of Detroit. According to the indictment, the person swore that “more than a million patriots will surround you when you least expect it” and “we will kill you.”
Barton said it was just one of many threats that left her deeply anxious.
“I really hope these accusations will send a strong message that we won’t find ourselves in the same situation after the next election,” she said.
Normally, the periods between elections are quiet for the workers who manage electoral systems in the United States. But for many, that’s no longer true, said Jena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state, a Democrat who has opposed conspiracy theories surrounding the election.
“I expect the situation to get worse as we wind down this year and head into the presidential election next year,” Griswold said.
Griswold said threats come in ‘waves’, usually following social media posts by prominent figures about false claims that the 2020 election was stolen or blog posts on extreme websites. RIGHT. Even as the nation is better informed about threats to election workers, it worries that there have not been enough prosecutions and that states have not taken enough action to protect workers. .
“Do we have the best tools to get through the next period? Absolutely not,” Griswold said.
About one in five election workers know someone who left their election job for security reasons, and 73% of local election workers said harassment had increased, according to a Brennan Center survey released in April.
The task force has reviewed more than 2,000 reports of threats and harassment across the country since its inception, though most of those cases have not resulted in charges from prosecutors, who point out the high legal bar set by the Supreme Court for criminal prosecutions. The communication should be considered a “genuine threat,” a threat that goes beyond a serious intent to harm someone, to constitute a potential crime rather than free speech, Keller said.
“We do not outright criminalize or discourage free speech through the actions we take from a law enforcement perspective,” he said.
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, though the task force itself has not not been publicly targeted by Republicans.
For many election workers, threats have been a major factor pushing them out of their jobs, emptying the ranks of experience before 2024, said Dokhi Fassihian, deputy chief of strategy and program at Issue One, a group of nonpartisan reform representative election officials.
“A lot of people decide it’s just not worth staying,” she said.