‘Swatting’ incident was meant to intimidate, says Maine secretary of state

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows saw her office flooded with a “stream of steady, abusive and threatening” messages targeting herself, her staff and her family in the wake of her decision that former President Trump was ineligible to be on her state’s primary ballot.

In an interview with The Hill, Bellows talked about how her own home address was posted online — and then swatted — the night of Dec. 29 after she and her husband had left their home to travel for the holiday weekend.

“It seems really clear that the swatting incident was designed to send a message to silence me and others, and to intimidate me from doing my job,” Bellows told The Hill in an interview. “And that’s absolutely wrong.”

Swatting involves prank calling emergency services to report a serious criminal threat, with the goal of drawing a significant law enforcement response. In the past, swatting incidents have had serious consequences, including at least two deaths linked to the tactic.

In recent weeks, a spate of swatting incidents has targeted public officials across the political spectrum, including prominent figures like Special Counsel Jack Smith, Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.) and the judges overseeing two of Trump’s legal cases.

Bellows was targeted after her historic and controversial decision that Trump was ineligible for Maine’s GOP primary ballots under the 14th Amendment’s insurrectionist clause due to his involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. Maine was the second state to take such action.

In May, the FBI launched a national database to track swatting incidents, and since then, more than 500 swattings have been reported by law enforcement, the agency told The Hill. Experts agreed that the figure is likely an undercount, given how challenging it is to investigate the tactic.

FILE – Shenna Bellows speaks at the Maine Democratic Convention in Bangor, Maine, May 31, 2014. Democrats who control the Maine Legislature on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 turned back a Republican effort to impeach the state’s top election official for her decision to remove President Donald Trump from the state ballot over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The Maine House voted 80-60 along party lines against an impeachment resolution targeting Shenna Bellows, the first secretary of state in history to block someone from running for president by using the U.S. Constitution’s insurrection clause. (AP Photo/Michael C. York, file)

Bellows said she felt “very well protected” by local law enforcement, but that the incident made her “committed” to speak out against the increasing threats.

“I think all of us have a responsibility to de-escalate the rhetoric…all of us in the political sphere have a responsibility to this democracy to model how you can have dialogue about differences of opinion, even on extremely sensitive urgent matters, without words that incite violence or harm,” she said.

The spate of swatting incidents follows a rise in threats against public officials, which experts have warned will only continue to worsen in a polarized election year. Whether the two are connected is still unclear, experts previously told The Hill.

Election officials are at increased risk. A 2022 poll conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in six election officials have experienced a threat. It’s contributed to a surge of retirements and resignations from election staff, causing experts to sound alarms that chaos and confusion could define the 2024 election without proper support.

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Despite the “new environment,” Bellows said she’s “fully confident” that the 2024 primaries and general election will be successful thanks to the strength of the Constitution and commitment of election officials.

“Election officials are master contingency planners,” Bellows said. “Our job is to prepare for free, safe and secure elections.

“We all have a role to play in ensuring that there’s a free, safe and secure election, and that means de-escalation of rhetoric and finding ways to agree to disagree with civility and respect,” she said.

Perhaps unexpectedly, her optimism for 2024 was bolstered by her swatting experience, she said. After the initial wave of threats, people from across Maine – including supporters of the former president – reached out to express “love and support,” despite many disagreeing with her decision to remove Trump from the ballot.

“One of my favorite country songs, the refrain is, ‘Most people are good,’” Bellows said. “I genuinely believe that.”

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