Threats to election officials

Red, white, and blue logo, with ballot box and words "Elections Under Attack"

Elections depend on loyal election officials, many of them volunteers, all committed to free and fair elections. Some are paid, full-time government employees, working year-round to make sure that elections run smoothly. Some are your neighbors, volunteering from 6 am to 9 pm in polling places on election days. 

Now more than one in five U.S. election officials say they may quit because of threats and political pressure. In August, a U.S. Justice Department task force reported investigating more than 1,000 threatsagainst election workers, and said more than 11 percent could warrant criminal prosecutions because of threats of violence. Threats reported to the Justice Department are the tip of the iceberg: most go to local police or are not reported at all.  

Originally published in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. “This is the third of MSR’s “Elections Under Attack” series that looks at four threats to our elections growing out of the Big Lie that the former president won the 2020 election. Articles in the series look at each of these threats to democratic elections in the United States, with an emphasis on Minnesota. Part I:Big Lie candidates running in November;  Part II: Sabotaging the election process. Part III: Threats to election officials; Part IV: Attacking voting rights.

Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, gave one of the most dramatic accounts of threats against election officials in their testimony to the House committee on the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. After the 2020 election, the Trump campaign accused the two Black women of committing election fraud in Fulton County, Alabama—a totally false and disproven claim. 

The harassment and threats that followed included death threats and barely veiled references to lynching. Election deniers forced their way into Shaye Moss’s grandmother’s home and threatened her. Ruby Freeman testified:

“There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere. Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you? The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American. Not to target one. But he targeted me, Lady Ruby, a small business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen, who stood up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of the pandemic.”

During an August 1 hearing on protecting election officials, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. discussed how the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force is prosecuting people who have threatened election officials. To date, the task force has investigated more than 1,000 complaints and has prosecuted five people. 

Among the threats

The hearing came as states are preparing for the November midterm election, which many election officials fear could prompt another surge in threats and harassment. A recent national survey found that one in five election officials say they are somewhat or very unlikely to stay in their jobs through 2024 due to the increased threats and political pressure. Among the threats:

  • New Mexico county clerk Amanda Lopez Askin reported several death threats.
  • In Washoe County, Nevada, election workers have been followed to their cars and threatened.  
  • In Gillespie County, Texas, the election administrator and the entire staff resigned in August because of threats and harassment. 
  • A Nebraska man pleaded guilty to making multiple threatening posts on Instagram, targeting an election official, with posts saying “Do you feel safe? You shouldn’t. Do you think Soros will/can protect you?” and “Your security detail is far too thin and incompetent to protect you. This world is unpredictable these days….anything can happen to anyone.”
  • In Colorado, a man called Secretary of State Jena Griswold and told her that “the angel of death is coming for her.”
  • Ken Matta, who worked in the Arizona Secretary of State’s office for 19 years, quit after threats from “people out front with full autos and assault rifles” who were “looking in our cars…seeing who’s going in and who’s going out.” 

Matta told Vice News that he fears for elections across the country after he and other experienced and committed election officials leave. “A lot of the people coming in to take those empty spots are going to be election deniers or conspiracy theorists. We have a lot of concerns about their entry into the process. This is really important: In the elections community, I can still say everybody is on board with the rules-based integrity of their jobs and the importance of elections. I can say I’d still trust my vote to any of these people. That will not continue to be true, starting in 2022 and definitely in 2024. It’s just impossible for that to remain true nationally.“

Information requests

Besides these overt threats to the lives and personal safety of election workers, attacks on the electoral process feature a flood of information requests designed to overwhelm election workers rather than to gather actual information. Well-funded right-wing organizations partnering in the Election Integrity Network demand voting records from 2020, as well as voter lists, personal information on election judges, voting machine records, and more. Kim Crockett, the Republican candidate for Minnesota Secretary of State, is affiliated with the Election Integrity Network. 

These organizations post cut-and-paste templates so that followers can file multiple requests for information—some legitimate and some, such as personal information about election judges or source code for voting machines, protected by law from disclosure. 

In Dane County, Wisconsin, County Clerk Scott McDonell said he had received more than 50 detailed and lengthy information requests in a two-day period. The New York Times reported on the Election Integrity Network’s activities before the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election:

“In Fairfax, a Democratic bastion outside Washington, about three dozen activists associated with the coalition and the local Republican Party rotated through election offices, combing through voter registration applications, undeliverable mail and other materials. Christine Brim, the task force’s leader, appeared in person or emailed staff nearly every day, according to Scott Konopasek, the registrar at the time. The operation ate up county workers’ time with dozens of information requests, as well as informal interrogations, Mr. Konopasek said.”

The assault on the election continued on election day, with election workers reporting that Republican poll watchers in 13 polling places were disruptive, standing too close to voters or taking photographs. 

The price of dissent

Arizona’s Speaker of the House, 69-year-old lifelong Republican Rusty Bowers, blocked a Republican effort to change Arizona law to allow the legislature to override the popular vote and pick its own winner in future presidential elections. He faced down pistol-wielding protesters outside his Arizona home. 

Bowers testified before the House January 6 committee and then lost a primary challenge to an election denier. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he warned:

“The constitution is hanging by a thread. The funny thing is, I always thought it would be the other guys. And it’s my side. That just rips at my heart: that we would be the people who would surrender the constitution in order to win an election. That just blows my mind…

“The veneer of civilization is this thin. It still exists—I haven’t been hanged yet. But holy moly, this is just crazy. The place has lost its mind.”

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