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Justice Dept. tells states they can use federal grant money to protect election workers

The Justice Department on Wednesday told states they could spend federal law enforcement grant money on protection for election workers, who have faced a plethora of threats in the aftermath of the 2020 election. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The Justice Department on Wednesday told states they could spend federal law-enforcement grant money on protection for election workers, who have faced a plethora of threats in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

In a letter Wednesday, Kristen Mahoney, acting director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, told state officials administering a law-enforcement grant program that they could use the funds “to deter, detect, and protect against threats of violence against election workers, administrators, officials, and others associated with the electoral process.”

Top officials also discussed the possibility in a meeting with election officials and workers, who have pressed the Justice Department to do more to provide for their safety and investigate and prosecute those making threats.

Last week, the Justice Department’s election threats task force brought its first criminal case against a Texas man accused of threatening election and other government workers in Georgia. Those included Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), according to people familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details not included in the indictment. The head of the Justice Department’s criminal division said at the time the task force has received more than 850 referrals of potentially harassing and offensive statements, resulting in dozens of open investigations or efforts to mitigate danger.

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How much federal cash will get spent on deterring threats to election workers is unclear. The funds at issue come from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which gives state and local jurisdictions various amounts of money for public safety endeavors, based on the states’ population and violent crime rate. In 2021, for example, Arizona received more than $4 million, while Michigan received about $5.8 million.

An agency or person is designated in each state to determine how the money is spent — though the Justice Department’s guidance gives a hint of federal officials’ priorities. In her own letter to state administering agency directors, Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s associate attorney general, noted that “the past year has seen an unprecedented increase in threats of violence against Americans who administer the election process in our country.”

“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting every American’s right to vote, including by protecting election workers against personal threats of violence that aim to undermine the electoral process,” Gupta wrote.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), who had armed demonstrators gather outside her home in December, said, “My immediate reaction to this is relief — in a time when local and state election officials are facing continued and escalating threats and harassment, it is a relief to know the Department of Justice is prioritizing investing in our safety and security, which is critical to ensuring our elections are safe and secure. The allocation should also help improve communication and collaboration between law enforcement and election officials, and removes from us the perpetual anxiety of trying to figure out how to fund needed security and protections.”

Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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