COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — This week’s poignant testimony to Congress about threats to local election officials after the 2020 presidential election had an enthusiastic audience well beyond Washington — US secretaries of state and election officials who said the stories could easily could have been their story. own.
Death threats, harassment and baseless accusations local election officials have been forced out of their jobs, unprecedented attacks that many say threaten not only themselves, but American democracy itself.
A day after the local polling station in Medford, Oregon, certified the results of the 2020 election, workers found a message spray-painted in their parking lot: “Vote Don’t Work. Next Time Bullets.”
“We spent the rest of the day quite in shock that this had happened here,” Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker testified at a hearing earlier this year on state legislation to protect election workers. “The noise that was happening across the country had come home.”
Bee Tuesday hearing of the House Committee investigating President Donald Trump’s role in the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol uprising, a mother and daughter who were election workers in Georgia brought the sense of danger to great relief. They testified that they were even afraid to say their names in public after Trump falsely accused them of voter fraud.
“There were many threats wishing me death,” said Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, the daughter.
Georgia has been a center of threats to election officials as Trump and his allies contested his loss to Joe Biden there and as Trump busy campaign on the Secretary of State to ‘find’ enough votes to say he had won.
In Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta, a Dominion Voting Systems contract employee received death threats after someone shot a video of him transferring a report to a county computer. Widely shared online posts falsely claimed that the young man manipulated election data.
That prompted Gabriel Sterling, the chief operating officer of the Secretary of State for Georgia, to lash out at the violent threats and false rhetoric at a December 2020 news conference, a moment he recalled during Tuesday’s congressional hearing.
Other misinformation was aimed at the suburban district, including claims that an electronics recycling truck disposing of surplus equipment outside a district office was shredding election hard drives.
The “exhaustion” of that political environment coupled with the coronavirus pandemic and a new voting system drove more than half of Gwinnett County’s permanent election staff to step down after the 2020 election, election supervisor Zach Manifold said.
After it was over, he said, “I think they all took a deep breath and a lot of people said, ‘Yeah, I just don’t think I can do this anymore.'”
He said the department has been rebuilt, but lacks the institutional knowledge about elections it once had.
Similar stories can be found across the country.
In Northern California’s Nevada County, a politically mixed region in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento, a judge agreed to issue restraining orders earlier this year against residents who had sued the security service at the county’s polling station. and demanded an update on their efforts to recall members. of the supervisory board.
Crystal Roascio, the election administrator in Carbon County, Montana, explained why the county stepped up election security during the June 7 primaries.
“I have electoral judges who are terrified for their safety and there are even some who have resigned as judges over this,” Roascio said in an email.
A survey published in March from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that one in three election officials know someone who has left their job partly because of threats and intimidation, and one in six has personally experienced threats. .
Citing the potential effect on democracy, the US Department of Justice established a task force nearly a year ago to address the mounting threats against election officials. Department of Public Integrity, Deputy Chief John Keller, described it in an email to The Associated Press as a “deeply troubling trend”.
The group’s first prosecutions came in January with the arrests of a Texas man accused of making death threats against a Georgia election official and a Nevada man of making death threats against that state’s Secretary of State. The last calls would have included: ‘I hope your children are being molested. You are all going to die (expletively).
Last week, a 42-year-old man from Lincoln, Nebraska, pleaded guilty to posting multiple threatening messages on Instagram to the Colorado Secretary of State last year.
“Do you feel safe?” said Travis Ford, according to court documents. “You should not.”
Jena Griswold, the Secretary of State, said those making the threats are trying to stop her and others from doing their job to protect fair and free elections.
“We’re not going to let that stop us. I’m not going to let that stop me,” Griswold said in an interview. “It just promotes my determination.”
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission voted unanimously earlier this month to expand the use of its funding to protect election officials and officials from threats. Amid the barrage, some in Congress are also pushing for solutions.
In addition to at least a dozen bills introduced or adopted at the state level, legislation introduced by Democrats in Congress last year would make it a federal crime for anyone to intimidate or threaten an election official. It was part of a larger Democrat-led vote-rights effort that cleared the House but was stopped by a Senate filibuster. In February, a separate bill was introduced that would protect election and polling station members.
Banning election threats would cover cases like some in Arizona, where since 2020 officials have handled threatening phone calls and messages that escalated during a partisan check of election results in the state’s largest county.
Maricopa County recorder Stephen Richer received voicemails calling him “scum” and a “traitor,” threatening him with civilian arrests and telling him he would burn in hell.
A caller told him that if he gave the Republican-backed contractors conducting the audit any more trouble, he would “never come” to his “next little board meeting.”
Richer said he referred some messages to law enforcement and deleted his Facebook account when people started using it to find and harass his wife.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson knows these kinds of threats all too well. She was one of the election officials personally threatened after Trump spread his false claims of widespread election fraud.
In a statement released Tuesday after the congressional hearing, she said election workers are applying for the job because they care about democracy. But she, her staff and many of the hundreds of local officials throughout Michigan have been targeted, resulting in “an ubiquitous sense of dread and dread that permeates our daily lives and that of our families.”
Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and Ali Swenson in New York contributed to this report.