Washington – “Do you feel safe? You shouldn’t.”
In August, 42-year-old Travis Ford of Lincoln, Neb., posted those words to the personal Instagram page of Colorado Secretary of State and Chief Electoral Officer Jenna Griswold. In a post 10 days later, Mr Ford told Ms Griswold that her security detail was unable to protect her, then added:
“This world is unpredictable these days…Anything can happen to anyone.”
Mr. Ford paid a high price for those words. Last week, in US District Court in Lincoln, he pleaded guilty to threatening with a telecommunications device, a felony that could carry up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But a year after Attorney General Merrick B. Garland established the federal Election Threat Task Force, almost no one else faced conviction. Two other cases are being tried, but Mr. Ford’s guilty plea is the only case the task force has successfully evaluated, evaluating more than 1,000.
Despite an explosion of intimidation and even violent threats against election workers, public reports of prosecution by state and local officials are equally sparse, mainly since former President Donald J. Trump began spreading lies that fraud cost him the 2020 presidential election.
Ms Griswold said Colorado alone has sent at least 500 threats against election workers to the task force.
The slow pace has sparked panic among both election workers and their supporters, some of whom say they are souring on the idea of reporting dangerous messages to prosecutors if nothing happens.
“The response is usually ‘Thanks for reporting; we’ll look into it,’ and there’s no concrete follow-up to understand what they’re doing,” said Megan Wolff, president of the National Association of State Election Directors. he said. “Some people feel there isn’t enough support to deter people from doing this in the future,” she said.
The depth of the fears of election workers was underlined at this month’s hearing by a congressional panel investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Ruby Freeman and Shay Moss, both mother and daughter and election activists in Atlanta, are about to be forced into hiding from a barrage of threats in December 2020, after being falsely accused of election fraud by Rudy Giuliani. It belonged to Mr Trump at the time. personal lawyer. The protesters tried to enter a relative’s house in search of both. Eventually he resigned from his posts.
This is not the norm, but neither is it unusual. Ms Griswold said one Colorado county clerk wears body armor to work, and another does business behind bulletproof glass.
“In my experience, if someone is repeatedly telling you how they will hang you, asking you the size of your neck so they can cut the rope properly, you have to take the dangers really seriously,” she said. , citing the threats received.
The city clerk in Milwaukee, Claire Woodall-Vogue, said she had “completely redesigned our office at City Hall for security reasons” after receiving hundreds of threats, which she said had been sent to the task force.
An investigation by Reuters in September found more than 100 threats of death or violence to election officials in eight battleground states, who at the time had made four arrests and found no convictions.
A survey conducted in March by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in six local election officials had personally experienced threats, and nearly a third said they knew people who did so because of security concerns. At least he had quit his job.
Justice Department officials declined to comment on the progress of the task force. The department has previously said the task force was tracking and logging election-related threats, and had opened dozens of criminal investigations as a result. This led to charges against men in Texas and Nevada in February and a recent guilty plea in Nebraska.
The task force has also conducted training and education sessions on threats with state and local law enforcement and election officials and with social media platforms. Each of the 56 FBI field offices is assigned an agent to collect and analyze threat reports, and federal prosecutors are trained to assess and investigate threats.
In the wake of those moves the impeachment move is explained by federal law, which very narrowly defines illegal threats in the name of preserving the constitutional right to free speech.
“You need to say something like, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ It can’t be, ‘Someone should kill you,’ said Catherine J. Ross, a professor and specialist in First Amendment law at George Washington University. “That’s a very high bar, and a deliberately high bar.”
That so-called true threat theory also classifies a number of extreme statements as protected political speech. It defies allegations against election officials in multiple cases of threats – even when recipients feel fearful for their lives.
Joanna Lidgett, founder and CEO of the bipartisan legal watchdog States United Democracy Center, said she was encouraged to see the results from the task force and understand, “Bringing these cases can be challenging, and they take time.” “
She said: “We certainly expect to see more of this from the DOJ, because it’s critically important to investigate these threats, build these cases, and hold people accountable, especially as we look to the medium term.” Huh.”
In Arizona, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office has reported more than 100 threats to the FBI in the past year, said C. Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman. Ms Hebert said she is confident the task force is reviewing those threats, but it may be a cold comfort to recipients who have not seen results.
“For the people being monitored and the people being targeted, a hundred messages saying ‘you must die’ are very dangerous,” she said. “But based on what we know about the process,” they are not actionable, she said.
Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said threats sent to him over the past year included voicemails and online chatter urging that he, his wife and children be shot in the head. He said he had reported at least one threat to the FBI
But while the bureau has helped clarify how its threat review process works and has met with local clerks, he said, they still don’t know whether their reports were followed up.
“It doesn’t give much comfort to people who receive threats,” he said. “I’ve heard some people say: ‘Why should I report this? It’s better to take my gun with me and if something happens, at least I can do something to protect myself.’ “
Other experts say both action and a lack of transparency were undermining the task force’s main goal – to contain the pandemic of violent threats.
“Three lawsuits a year seems too little for a nationally widespread problem,” said David J. Baker, a one-time voting rights attorney at the Justice Department who now directs the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. “Accurate or not, the perception among election officials is that the Justice Department’s effort that began with great fanfare a year ago is not working.”
The Brennan Center report in March found that more than half of threats against election officials were not reported, and that the majority of threats were sent to local law enforcement agencies, not state or federal law enforcement.
Four out of 10 election officials said they had never heard of the task force. And while the Justice Department has extended access to election officials and promoted a hotline that can be used to report complaints, “very little is really about what happens when a complaint is made.” The details are there,” said Lawrence Norden, the center’s senior director of elections. and government programs.
“Election officials are right that public repercussions for these threats will be key to mitigating them,” he said. But, so far, there have been very few court cases that prove that perpetrators will be held accountable.
Until that changes — if it does — election officials need more reassurance that law enforcement has their back, he and others said.
“You have too many election officials exercising their Second Amendment rights before 2020,” said Mr. Crane, head of the Colorado Clerks Association. “Only one of these crazy people has to show up at your door.”