The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Election workers brace for a torrent of threats: ‘I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP’

Workers ranging from secretaries of state to poll workers have faced harassment online since the 2020 elections. They say social media companies and law enforcement need to do more.

Pennsylvania acting secretary of state Leigh Chapman in a recent interview said the state has partnered with federal agencies to protect election workers. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Since the 2020 election, the threats have followed Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) across her Facebook and Instagram pages, into her email inbox and Twitter feed, and across fringe social networks.

“Watch your back,” said one Facebook message. “I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP, I SEE YOU SLEEPING. BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID.”

“Penalty for treason? Hanging or firing squad. You can pick Griswold,” said one Instagram comment.

Griswold’s office has identified hundreds more threats against her since 2020, when she says Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results opened her up to a torrent of abuse. Though her office is in communication with major tech companies to address harassment and disinformation, she said it’s clear Silicon Valley is not adequately responding.

“The ‘big lie’ and disinformation about elections has been used to pass voter suppression, destabilize elections, corrode confidence and it has led to political violence,” Griswold said. “It’s a tremendous problem.”

Midterms pose fresh test for American democracy after two years under fire

The flood of online harassment that Griswold has experienced over the past two years is indicative of a tide of threats that have targeted election workers at all levels, from secretaries of state to poll workers. Elections experts say the threats are a direct result of the false narratives about the 2020 elections that were spread in part on social media and have catapulted once obscure administrators and county officials to the center of viral hoaxes and conspiracy theories.

Election officials who’ve been targeted online and law enforcement officials are bracing for another wave of threats on Election Day and its aftermath, when new claims of election fraud are expected to lead to more violent rhetoric online.

The FBI declined to comment for this story. Last month, the agency issued a warning about the threats to election workers, and said it continues to “prioritize identifying, mitigating and investigating threats targeting election workers.” It has asked the public to submit tips related to election crimes via local field offices or its website.

Jen Easterly, director of the government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said during a forum last week that local law enforcement also plays a critical role in securing elections. CISA spent several weeks doing nationwide trainings about how to de-escalate situations.

“Securing elections is a nonpartisan activity, and there is no place for threats,” she said. “It is unacceptable.”

Election officials throughout the country, including in competitive states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania, say the threats come in waves and follow what’s happening in the news. Allie Bones, Arizona’s assistant secretary of state, said her office is expecting the week of Election Day to be “active.”

This year, GOP election deniers got a free pass from Twitter and Facebook

The continued harassment has contributed to high turnover among election officials across the country. According to a survey published earlier this year from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law, 1 in 5 election officials are unlikely to continue serving through 2024. Politicians’ attacks on the system, and stress, are the primary reasons they plan to leave, according to the study.

“It’s a challenge every day,” said Lisa Deeley, who as chairwoman of the Philadelphia city commissioners oversees that city’s elections. “The job has changed so much because every day you’re getting the kitchen sink thrown at you, and all the vegetables in the refrigerator and all the sheets and towels in the linen closet.”

Election officials across the country report being in communication with major tech platforms to address any new threats. Election officials in states including Arizona, New Mexico and Pennsylvania say they have had conversations with representatives from companies including Facebook and Twitter, where the issue of election-related threats were discussed.

Twitter, which recently laid off most of its communications staff, did not respond to a request for comment. The company has long had a policy prohibiting threats against election officials, and continues to enforce it, said a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the company’s election plans. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, earlier this year shared guidance with CISA and all 50 election offices outlining how to help election officials protect themselves online.

“We encourage anyone who encounters potentially violating content to use the many reporting tools we make available directly in our apps so we can quickly review it,” Meta spokeswoman Dani Lever said. “We have also expanded our policies to address coordinated harassment and threats of violence against election officials and poll workers.”

But most states and counties do not have dedicated staff to monitor the scope of threats taking place.

On Election Day, the Arizona Secretary of State Office will rely on a group of interns to keep an eye on what’s happening online, though their focus will primarily be on addressing any questions people have about voting.

“We don’t have a security staff that’s monitoring all of the comments,” Bones said. “It’s quite traumatizing to have to go through all of that and see what people are saying about you, your office or your boss.”

And fringe social networks or more private chat channels, where researchers say much of the most violent rhetoric occurs, remain a blind spot for most election officials.

In the run-up to the election, there were multiple threats generally against people counting ballots on sites such as Gab and the .win forums. On Gab, people shared images of guns with captions like “When it takes too long to count the ballots and it goes into another day” and “When the windows are covered to count illegal ballots.”

Women of color running for office face higher rates of violent threats online

Since the 2020 election, there have been increased efforts to combat threats against election officials, both online and off. The Justice Department in 2021 launched a task force focused on protecting elections officials. As of August, the task force had reviewed more than 1,000 “harassing contacts” directed toward election workers, and about 11 percent met the threshold for a federal criminal investigation. As of Election Day, the Department of Justice has charged eight defendants with making threats to election workers, and secured one conviction in June 2022. There have also been multiple state prosecutions.

However, election officials on the front lines say these prosecutions amount to just a fraction of the threats they receive.

At the state level, there’s been an increased push to pass legislation. Washington state recently adopted a law that would make it a felony to threaten an election worker online, and Colorado now has a law that would make it illegal to post an election official’s information online to harass them. Other states are considering similar measures.

Online threats and doxing against election officials have been a key focus of the congressional Jan. 6 Committee hearings. Al Schmidt, a Republican former Philadelphia city commissioner, told the committee that after Trump tweeted about him, he and his family received death threats. Shaye Moss, a Georgia poll worker, said she was stunned to see horrible threats flood her Facebook Messenger inbox after Rudy Giuliani, then Trump’s top campaign lawyer, publicly claimed she and her mother had rigged the election outcome.

“A lot of threats wishing death upon me, telling me I’ll be in jail with my mother and saying things like, ‘Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920,’” she said.

David Becker, the executive director and founder of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, said the threats are coming not because the officials “did anything wrong, but because they pulled off the greatest success in the history of democracy” in 2020.

“There’s a real toll taken here on real human beings,” Becker said. “There’s no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. Election officials don’t get rich and famous. Your best case scenario as an election official is anonymity.”

Tim Starks contributed to this report.