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Over 1,000 election-worker threats reported in past year, official says

Witnesses at a Senate judiciary hearing Wednesday said the threats could deter workers who are needed to keep elections functioning

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, left, and Kim Wyman, a senior election security adviser with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, are sworn in prior to testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 3. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The Justice Department has reviewed more than 1,000 hostile threats against election workers over the past year, leading to federal charges in five cases and one conviction, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Polite, who heads the department’s criminal division, described an increasingly rampant problem across the country, detailing for lawmakers repeated and often graphically violent threats that have targeted election officials in Nevada, Michigan, Arizona and other states.

The hearing focused on the findings of a Justice Department task force that convened last summer to examine threats against election workers, which officials say increased sharply after President Donald Trump and his supporters falsely claimed that the results of the 2020 election were tainted.

Polite said about 10 percent of the 1,000 or so complaints the tasks force received met the threshold for a criminal investigation. Many were referred to the task force by state law enforcement agencies.

Analysis: Threats against election workers could have bad consequences

None of the threats the task force is investigating have resulted in reported violence, according to Polite. He has said he expects more charges in the near future. Officials said around a quarter of the reported threats were made through social media.

“The trauma experienced in this community,” Polite said, “is profound and unprecedented.”

Federal officials secured their lone conviction in June, when 42 year-old Travis Ford pleaded guilty to threatening to kill Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) on Instagram last year. Ford, who lives in Nebraska, is expected to be sentenced Oct. 6, according to the Justice Department.

Wednesday’s hearing — led by the committee’s chair, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) — highlighted the sharp political divides surrounding the perception of election fraud and threats against workers.

Kim Wyman, a senior election security adviser for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, grew emotional as she detailed the importance of election workers and the challenges they face. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D) testified that many people no longer want to be election workers and said she fears some states won’t have enough poll workers to run a fair election in the upcoming cycles.

But Republican senators on the committee asked the witnesses few questions about election workers and instead cited rising violent crime rates in the country, questioning why the Justice Department isn’t focused more on that issue. Multiple senators also asked Polite why the federal officials were not more aggressively trying to prosecute protesters who have been rallying in front of the suburban Maryland homes of Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“DOJ is not choosing what to convene task forces on by the level of violence,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the committee. “They’re choosing by the political message.”

Polite said the federal government is closely focused on violent crime and is not ignoring threats against judges. He noted that prosecutors in Maryland have charged 26-year-old Nicholas Roske with a single count of attempting to assassinate Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh in June.

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“The fact of the matter is that it does not require a task force for these type of cases to be priorities for us,” Polite said.

Elizabeth Howard, senior counsel in the elections and government program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center, called the Justice Department data on elections threats “shocking” but also said the number was probably understated.

The Brennan Center conducted a survey this year that found that less than half of election officials receiving threats had reported them to law enforcement, and that only 20 percent reported threats to federal agencies.

“There is more work to do,” Howard said in an interview. “The numbers are not surprising to us, given the conversations we are having with election officials.”

Polite said at the hearing that underreporting is always a concern.

The high-profile Jan. 6 congressional hearings on the planning of the attack on the U.S. Capitol also have spotlighted the harassment that poll workers faced in the wake of the 2020 election. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R) declined to support Trump’s false claims that he had won Arizona’s electoral votes and said Trump supporters now gather in front of his home, playing videos proclaiming him to be a pedophile.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said her family has faced so many threats that her 6-year-old son recently picked up a stick in front of their home and said he would use it to protect his family.

Oliver, New Mexico’s secretary of state, also detailed threats that rank-and-file poll workers are experiencing, warning lawmakers that many feel it is no longer safe to work at polling locations.

“Without them, we simply do not have a democracy and we will not have a democratic process,” Oliver said. “We are on the verge of not having that process anymore, because we are not going to have enough committed citizen individuals if these threats and the ‘big lie’ that is driving them continues.”