WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 former President 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 federal government to do more to protect election workers.
The Justice Department created the Election Threats 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 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.”
Two more men pleaded guilty Thursday to threatening election workers in Arizona and Georgia in separate cases. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department would keep up the investigations, adding, “A functioning democracy requires that the public servants who administer our elections are able to do their jobs without fearing for their lives."
The unit has filed 14 cases and two have resulted in yearslong prison sentences, including a 2 1/2-year sentence Monday for Mark Rissi, an Iowa man charged with leaving a message threatening to “lynch” and “hang” an Arizona election official. He had been “inundated with misinformation" and now “feels horrible” about the messages he left, his lawyer Anthony Knowles said.
A Texas man was given 3 1/2 years earlier 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.” His lawyer did not return a message 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.
Normally, the periods between elections are quiet for the workers who run voting systems around the U.S. But for many, that’s no longer true, said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, 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.
Election officials note that there have been thousands of threats nationwide yet relatively few prosecutions. They say they understand the high bar to actually prosecute a case but that more could be done.
Liz Howard, a former Virginia election official now at the Brennan Center for Justice's elections and government program, called on the Justice Department to hire a senior adviser with existing relationships with election officials to improve outreach.
About 1 in 5 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.
Many GOP leaders have sharply criticized the federal prosecutions of Trump and of rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and Trump himself faces a federal indictment in Washington, D.C., and a state indictment in Georgia over his efforts to overturn 2020 election results. He has denied wrongdoing and said he was acting within the law. A series of federal and state investigations and dozens of lawsuits have not uncovered any evidence the election was rigged.
Trump is the front-runner for the GOP nomination for president in 2024 and continues in his speeches and online posts to argue the 2020 election was rigged.
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 nonpartisan reform group representing election officials.
About 1 in 5 election officials in 2024 will have begun service after the 2020 election, the Brennan Center survey found.
“Many are deciding it’s just not worth it to stay,” Fassihian said.
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. AP Director of Public Opinion Research Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.