U.S. lawmakers seek to protect election workers after Reuters investigation

·4-min read
FILE PHOTO: First day of early voting for the New York Primary election, in New York

By Linda So and Jason Szep

(Reuters) - Democratic Congress members called for tougher legislation to address death threats against U.S. election administrators following a Reuters report that exposed a lack of arrests in response to a wave of intimidation targeting the workers since November’s presidential election.

In a report https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-threats-law-enforcement published on Wednesday, Reuters identified more than 100 threats of death or violence made to election workers and officials, part of an unprecedented campaign of intimidation inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The response from U.S. law enforcement has so far produced only four known arrests and no convictions.

“This is a real problem, and it needs attention,” said Representative John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. “If they are under attack, our democracy is very much under attack.”

In late June, Sarbanes was among a group of Democratic House members and senators who introduced the Preventing Election Subversion Act, which would make it a federal crime to intimidate, threaten, coerce, or harass an election worker. It would also seek to limit “arbitrary and unfounded removals of local election officials.”

At about the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a task force to investigate threats against election workers.

About two weeks earlier, on June 11, Reuters published a report https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-trump-georgia-threats that revealed chilling threats made against Georgia election officials and their families, including Tricia Raffensperger, wife of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. In late July, a House committee held a hearing on election threats.

The second Reuters investigation into the topic, published this week, found large gaps in the protection that U.S. law enforcement provides election administrators. Local police agencies said they have struggled to identify suspects who make anonymous threats and to determine which threats rise to the level of crimes. Some election officials complained that police or federal investigators did not take the threats seriously and said they were confused about which agency, if any, was investigating.

“This report shows how critical this bill is to protecting the independence and safety of our local election officials and to ensuring that elections are free and fair,” Sarbanes said.

Representative Nikema Williams, a Georgia Democrat, called the threats to election workers “appalling.”

“This shouldn't happen in this country,” said Williams whose district includes Fulton County, where Reuters documented dozens of death threats to election workers and their family members.

Reuters contacted more than a dozen Republican lawmakers for comment. They included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and Senators Mitt Romney, of Utah and Ted Cruz, of Texas; along with Representatives Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California. All either declined to comment or did not respond to requests. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.

Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a 2024 presidential hopeful, said that threatening anyone is illegal in Florida.

“Making threats of violence against anyone – including but not limited to elected officials – is a felony in Florida,” DeSantis said in a statement to Reuters. “This has been the case long before November 2020.”

‘WE MUST PROTECT THEM’

Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat from Pennsylvania and a co-sponsor with Sarbanes of the bill to protect election workers, said she plans to speak with her colleagues about holding a hearing on the issue and contacting the Justice Department.

“Nobody’s being held accountable,” Scanlon said of the people sending the threats.

The Reuters report documented several election officials in her district who received death threats and went into hiding. Scanlon said she plans to have discussions with DOJ officials to ensure they have the tools to effectively prosecute the threats of violence.

In response to the Reuters report, the Justice Department said in a statement on Wednesday that it was “committed to aggressively addressing threats of violence directed toward state and local election workers and will work tirelessly with our federal, state, and local partners to strengthen our collective efforts to combat this recent and entirely unacceptable phenomenon.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland promised more than 1,400 election officials in an Aug. 26 call that the Justice Department takes their safety seriously.

Threats to election officials, he said, are "the subject of intense focus by the highest levels of the Department of Justice,” according to a transcript of his remarks.

Pete Aguilar, a Democrat from California, said the ongoing threats underscored the need to better protect the personal information of election workers. Reuters found that many officials received threats on their personal cell phones or faced personal attacks from people who knew their home addresses.

“They deserve to know that they will not be harassed or threatened for doing their important work,” Aguilar said.

Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez, a New Mexico Democrat, said election officials have relayed to her that they experience fear daily.

“Counting the votes should not be a dangerous job,” she said.

(Reporting by Linda So and Jason Szep; editing by Brian Thevenot)

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