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More Than A Dozen People Charged By US Unit For Threatening Election Workers

More than a dozen people nationally have been charged with threatening election workers by a justice department unit trying to stem the tide of violent and graphic threats against people who count and secure the vote.

Government employees are being bombarded with threats even in normally quiet periods between elections, secretaries of state and experts warn. Some point to Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly and falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen and spreading conspiracy theories about election workers. Experts fear the 2024 election could be worse and want the justice department to do more to protect election workers.

The justice department had created the taskforce 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 the department hoped its prosecutions would deter others from threatening election workers.

“This isn’t going to be taken lightly. It’s not going to be trivialized,” he said. “Federal judges, the courts are taking misconduct seriously and the punishments are going to 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 has filed 14 cases and two have resulted in years-long prison sentences, including a two-and-a-half-year sentence for an Iowa man charged with leaving a message threatening to “lynch” and “hang” an Arizona election official.

A Texas man was given three and a half years in prison this month after suggesting a “mass shooting of poll workers and election officials” last year, charges stated. In one message, the justice department said, the man wrote: “Someone needs to get these people AND their children. The children are the most important message to send.”

Lawyers for the two men did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

One indictment unveiled in August was against a man accused of leaving an expletive-filled voicemail after the 2020 election for Tina Barton, a Republican who formerly was the clerk in Rochester Hills, Michigan, outside Detroit. According to the indictment, the person vowed that “a million plus patriots will surround you when you least expect it” and “we’ll … kill you”.

Barton said it was just one of many threats that left her feeling deeply anxious.

“I’m really hopeful the charges will send a strong message, and we won’t find ourselves in the same position after the next election,” she said.

A poll worker directs people to voting machines during the US midterm election in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty ImagesNormally, the periods between elections are quiet for the workers who run voting systems around the US. But for many, that’s no longer true, said Jena Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state, a Democrat who has pushed back against conspiracy theories surrounding elections.

“I anticipate it will get worse as we end this year and go into the presidential election next year,” Griswold said.

Griswold said the threats come in “waves”, usually following social media posts by prominent figures about false claims the 2020 election was stolen or blog posts on far-right websites. While the nation is more informed about the threats to election workers, she worries that there haven’t been enough prosecutions and states haven’t taken enough action to protect workers.

“Do we have the best tools to get through the next period of time? Absolutely not,” Griswold said.

About one in five election workers know someone who left their election job for safety reasons and 73% of local election officials said harassment has increased, according to a Brennan Center survey published 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 haven’t brought charges from prosecutors who point to the high legal bar set by the supreme court for criminal prosecution. Communication must be considered a “true threat”, one that crosses a line to a serious intent to hurt someone, in order to be a potential crime rather than free speech, Keller said.

“We are not criminalizing or frankly discouraging free speech by actions that we’re taking from a law enforcement perspective,” he said.

The task force’s work is unfolding 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 itself hasn’t been targeted publicly by Republicans.

For many election workers, the threats have been a major driving factor to leave the job, hollowing out the ranks of experience ahead of 2024, said Dokhi Fassihian, the deputy chief of strategy and program at Issue One, a non-partisan reform group representing election officials.

“Many are deciding it’s just not worth it to stay,” she said.

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