Justice Department to take a harder look at harassment of election officials
By Tom Baxter
In most stories last week, the news that the U.S. Justice Department is forming a task force to investigate and prosecute violent threats and intimidation of election officials and poll workers was played several paragraphs below the news that the feds were challenging Georgia’s voter law.
United States v. Georgia, the voter law challenge, is going to be one of those big, complicated cases that will take years, and reams of digital commentary, to sort out. It’s “the first of many steps,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said, which the Biden administration intends to use to challenge changes made by Republican legislatures after last year’s presidential election. It will make news slowly for a long time.
Don’t discount the potential for the task force to make plenty of news in the meantime. Recently the Reuters news service reported on what it said was a “particularly severe” wave of threats and intimidation against officials in Georgia since the election. The story expanded on previous reports of threatening messages and calls to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his family, along with more reporting on the ongoing intimidation of local election workers. It gives us a broader look at just how much harassment election officials, not just the headline names but poll workers just doing their jobs, have had to endure.
“We’ll make the Boston Bombings look like child’s play at the poll sites in this country,” said an email message received in the election offices of more than 10 Georgia counties, typical of hundreds of messages and emails shared by officials. One poll worker reported being followed and nearly run off a country road delivering ballots for the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs, while the Raffensperger family shared information about a suspicious break-in at a family member’s home. Georgia officials have been threatened with death by firing squad, hanging, and other means, and African-American poll workers have been targeted with a lot of racist language.
Around the nation, increased threats and intimidation has been cited as a factor in a wave of retirements and resignations of veteran election officials.
The Reuters story about Georgia was presumably one of the media reports which Garland said brought the problem to his attention and led to the announcement of the task force. The task force will bring together officials from the FBI and the criminal, civil rights and national security divisions of the U.S. Justice Department. A toll-free hotline is also being established for people to report incidents of threats or intimidation.
Some of the threatening messages may have come from loners blowing off steam, but the volume and repetitive nature of some of the messages suggests an organized campaign of intimidation. There might be links to some of the far-right groups under investigation for their role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
The formation of the task force also brings us back, once again, to the investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s investigation into former President Donald Trump’s attempt to pressure Raffensperger into overturning the presidential election result in Georgia.
Willis said back in February that the team she was assembling would investigate “any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration,” which would put it on a path similar to the newly formed task force. Some might argue that the tape of Trump’s telephone conversation with Raffensperger amounts to a case of intimidation in itself. No evidence has been put forward to suggest the former president or anyone in his administration encouraged what appears to be a protracted, concerted and illegal campaign of harassment. But real investigative muscle is being deployed for the first time, and there is no telling what it might turn up.
There is going to be a full-on political battle over United States v. Georgia, just as there was over the passage of the law being challenged in the case. There shouldn’t be a battle about threats to election officials.
If we’re worried about not having enough low-wage workers to serve us at restaurants, we need to get worried about having enough people to staff our next election, and fast. The various voting laws being passed around the country include new legal liabilities for election officials already exhausted by the demands of the pandemic and an increase in violent threats which last year’s election put into overdrive. A hotline to report death threats is the least we can do for them, don’t you think?