Thursday, September 29, 2022

Faced with threats, some poll workers weigh whether to stay

BATON ROUGE, La. ( Associated Press) — After polls closed in New Mexico’s primary last month, a worker returning ballots and other election materials to the clerk’s office in Santa Fe was followed by a partisan poll watcher who was driving so close that only inches separated their bumpers. .

The poll worker was so shaken by the ordeal that she said she may not be back for the upcoming November election, according to Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark.

The incident is just one of many where election officials and workers have felt threatened since the 2020 presidential election and false claims that they stole it from former President Donald Trump.. A federal effort to investigate these threats has so far produced three prosecutions since it began a year ago.

Meanwhile, the harassment and death threats have not stopped against those who have rejected the false claims. The threats have contributed to an exodus of election officials across the country, particularly at the local level, and have made recruiting poll workers even more difficult, adding to the challenges of running elections smoothly in the fall.

“I’m a Republican registrar living in a Republican county where the candidate they wanted to win won 2-1 in this county and I’m still in trouble and so are my staff,” said Leslie Hoffman, the chief election official. in Yavapai County, Arizona.

Hoffman announced last week that he was resigning to take another job, saying his decision was largely motivated by “the evil that we’ve dealt with.” Hoffman said the county elections director left for the same reasons.

On Friday, a US Justice Department official met with state election officials gathered in Louisiana for their summer conference and updated them on the work of a special task force, which was announced a year ago.

Federal prosecutors charged three men, one of whom pleaded guilty last month.. In that case, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold was the subject of multiple threatening posts on social media.

Griswold said the threats haven’t stopped. Just last week, a caller to his office’s public phone line said, “Hey, I’ve got a message for the secretary and I want you to pass it on. The angel of death is coming for her in the name of Jesus Christ.”

“The fact is they’ve only done three prosecutions when we know there are literally thousands and thousands of violent threats directed at poll workers and secretaries of state,” Griswold said. “People are using threats as part of the attack on democracy to try to intimidate poll workers, to try to intimidate county clerks and secretaries of state, and they’re succeeding in some places.”

Robert Heberle, deputy chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, told state election officials Friday that federal investigators are looking at each report to determine which cases may be prosecuted. He pointed to the challenges of attributing threats that are often made anonymously and meeting the legal standard of proving a “serious expression of intent to commit an unlawful act of violence.”

Heberle discussed some examples where the threats were hostile but vague and would need additional evidence to prosecute. He encouraged secretaries of state to continue to report every threat and said having law enforcement contact threat-makers could deter them from doing so again.

“I can assure you that we take this set of issues, the threats to poll workers, election officials, whether elected, appointed or volunteer, incredibly seriously,” Heberle said. “We understand the seriousness of the problem.”

He said dozens of cases were still under investigation and more prosecutions were expected.

A survey released earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that one in three election officials knew someone who had left a job in part due to threats and intimidation, and that one in six had personally experienced threats.

Federal and state election officials and Trump’s attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president’s fraud allegations have also been rejected by the courts, including Trump-appointed judges.

Experts said it is critical that those who threaten be held accountable to dissuade others from thinking they can do the same.

“Election officials are grateful for the steps the task force has taken. But there is absolutely more to do,” said Liz Howard, a former state election official in Virginia now at the Brennan Center.

Among the recommendations the Brennan Center has made is to expand the task force to include state and local law enforcement agencies that are often the first contact for an election official.

A group of current and former election officials and law enforcement officials recently formed the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, which plans to provide guidance and training to prevent and respond to threats and violence against election officials.

Last month, the US Election Assistance Commission, which distributes federal grants to election offices, said its funds could be used to protect election officials against threats. Legislation has also been sought at the state and federal level to increase penalties for those who attack poll workers.

In Colorado, lawmakers have approved a bill that makes it a misdemeanor to disclose election officials’ personal information online for the purpose of threatening them or their family.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, held a hearing last year highlighting the threats and urging federal protections for poll workers. Klobuchar and other Senate Democrats sent a letter asking the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to issue a joint announcement to local law enforcement agencies to “ensure they are aware of the recent increase in these threats against election officials and federal resources.” to denounce and counteract them”.

Back in Santa Fe, the Clark County Clerk said anxiety remains high among her staff. Employees have been trained in active fire situations, have required bulletproof glass to be installed, and GPS tracking is used during ballot box transportation.

While she is concerned for her safety, she says she is not ready to resign or change careers, stressing her responsibility to the voters who elected her.

“My dad served in the military, my grandfather served in the military,” Clark said. “I don’t feel like he’s bad enough yet to feel like my public service is too much.”


Associated Press writers Bob Christie in Phoenix and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report.

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