‘Kill ’em’: Arizona election workers face midterm threats
Nov 6 (Reuters) – Election workers in Arizona’s most embattled district faced more than 100 violent threats and intimidating communications ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, most of them based on election conspiracy theories promoted by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
Harassment in Maricopa County included threatening emails and social media posts, threats to circulate personal information online and taking pictures of employees coming to work, according to nearly 1,600 pages of documents obtained by Reuters through a public records request for security records and correspondence regarding threats and harassment of election workers.
Between July 11 and August 22, the county election office documented at least 140 threats and other hostile communications, records show. “You will all be executed,” said one. “Wire around their limbs and tied and dragged by a car,” wrote another.
The documents reveal the ramifications of election conspiracy theories as voters nominate candidates to compete in the midterm elections in August. Many of the threats in Maricopa County, which helped President Joe Biden beat Trump in 2020, cited debunked claims of fraudulent ballots, rigged voting machines and corrupt election officials.
Other jurisdictions across the country were also seen threats and harassment this year by supporters of the former president and prominent Republican figures who question the legitimacy of the 2020 election, according to interviews with Republican and Democratic election officials in 10 states.
Threats come at a moment’s notice growing concern about the risk of political violence, highlighted by the Oct. 28 attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband by a man who embraced right-wing conspiracy theories.
In Maricopa, a county of 4.5 million people that includes Phoenix, the harassment has upset some election workers, according to previously unreported incidents documented in emails and interviews with county officials.
A number of temporary workers quit after being forced outside the main ballot counting center after the Aug. 2 election, Stephen Richer, the county recorder who helps oversee Maricopa’s elections, said in an interview. One temporary employee broke down in tears after a stranger took a photo of her, according to an email Richer sent to district officials. The unidentified worker left work earlier and never returned.
She was not a political person, she told Richer. She just wanted a job.
On August 3, strangers in tactical gear calling themselves “First Amendment Auditors” circled the election department building, pointing cameras at employees and their license plates. People vowed to continue monitoring during the midterms, according to an Aug. 4 email from Scott Jarrett, Maricopa’s director of elections, to county officials.
“It feels very much like predatory behavior and being stalked,” Jarrett wrote.
THE ATTACKS CONTINUED
From the 2020 election. Reuters documented more than 1,000 intimidating messages to election officials across the country, including more than 120 that could warrant criminal prosecution, according to legal experts.
Many officials said they had hoped the harassment would eventually die down after the 2020 results were certified. But the attacks have continued, fueled in many cases by right-wing media personalities and groups that continue to label election officials complicit in a vast Chinese conspiracy without evidence. Democratic officials and voting equipment manufacturers to rob Trump of a second term as president.
In April, local election officials in Arizona participated in a drill to simulate violence at a polling place in which several people were killed, according to an April 26 email from Lisa Marre, president of Arizona Election Officials, which represents election administrators from the state’s 15 counties. The exercise was intended to help officials prepare for election day violence and left participants “understandably upset,” according to an email to more than a dozen local election directors.
In a statement, Marra said, “This is just one more tool we can use to ensure election security for all.”
At times, Maricopa officials appeared to be overwhelmed by threatening social media posts and right-wing message boards calling for the workers to be executed or hanged. Some of the messages asked for officials’ home addresses, including one that promised “late night visits.” Employees were recorded coming and going from work, according to emails from county officials.
Two days after the Aug. 2 primary election, the county’s information security officer sent an email to the FBI pleading for help.
“I appreciate the limitations of what the FBI can do, but I just want to underscore this,” wrote Michael Moore, information security officer for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office. “Our staff are being intimidated and threatened,” he added. “We will continue to find it increasingly difficult to do our job when no one wants to work for elections.”
The FBI special agent acknowledged the agency’s limitations, the emails said. “As you said, we are limited in what we can do — we only investigate violations of federal law,” the FBI agent responded in an Aug. 4 email. Reporting the threats to local law enforcement is “the only thing I can suggest,” the agent wrote, “even if it has not resulted in any action at this time.”
The FBI declined to comment on the agent’s response to Moore. He also declined to confirm or deny the existence of ongoing investigations into the threats.
Moore did not respond to requests for comment, but Richer, his boss, said in a statement that he greatly appreciates the FBI’s partnership and vigilance. “This is an inherently emotional subject – messages of the most vile nature have been sent to my team on multiple occasions,” the statement said.
One anonymous sender using the privacy-protecting email service ProtonMail sent “harassing emails” for nearly a year, Moore wrote in an Aug. 4 email to the FBI. One message warned Richer that he would be “hanged as a traitor”.
“I wish I had a black and white poster in my office of you hanging from the end of a rope,” the sender wrote.
The harassment and threats took a toll on the mental health of election workers, Jarrett wrote in his Aug. 4 memo. “If our permanent and temporary staff do not feel safe, we will not be able to hire and retain staff for the upcoming election.”
In all, county officials referred at least 100 messages and social media posts to the FBI and state counterterrorism officials. Reuters found no evidence in the correspondence that officials saw any of the messages as infringing an expansive definition of constitutionally protected freedom of speech and moving into the territory of a criminally prosecuted threat.
The US Justice Department declined to comment on specific ongoing investigations, but said it has opened dozens of cases across the country involving threats to election workers. Eight people face federal charges for making threats, including two who targeted Maricopa County officials.
DOJ spokesman Joshua Stueve said that while the “vast majority” of complaints the agency receives “do not involve threats of unlawful violence,” he said the messages are “often hostile, harassing and abusive” toward election officials and their staff. “They deserve better,” Stueve said.
Misinformation on right-wing websites and social media fueled much of the hostility toward election staff, according to internal messages from Maricopa officials.
On July 31, Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump website with a history of publishing false stories, reported that a Maricopa County election official had allowed technical staff to gain unauthorized access to a computer server room, where he deleted 2020 election data set up for audit. The website published the names and photos of the officers and technicians; readers responded with threats to both.
“Until we start hanging these evildoers, nothing will change,” one reader wrote in the comments section of Gateway Pundit. Another suggested death for the computer technology identified in the story: “hang that thief from the (nearest) tree so people can see what happens to traitors.”
The technology didn’t erase anything, according to a Maricopa spokesman. He was instructed by the county elections director to shut down the delivery server to the Arizona State Senate in response to a subpoena. A review of server records confirmed nothing had been deleted, a spokesman told Reuters, and all data from the 2020 election had been archived and saved months earlier.
Election workers highlighted in Gateway Pundit stories “tend to see an increase in the number of targets” for threats and harassing messages, Moore, the district’s information security officer, said in an email to the FBI dated Nov. 18, 2021. Those stories , he added, are often “flagrantly inaccurate.” Reuters investigation published last December revealed that Gateway Pundit was cited in more than 100 threatening and hostile communications directed at 25 election workers in the year following the 2020 election.
Other right-wing news outlets and commentators have drawn similarly hostile comments in response to their accusations against Maricopa officials. In August, right-wing provocateur Charlie Kirk posted a Telegram comment accusing Richer, the county clerk, and “his cronies” of turning the Arizona election into a “third-world circus.”
“When are we going to start hanging these people for treason?” one reader commented. Another simply added, “Kill them.”
Gateway Pundit and Kirk did not respond to requests for comment.
After a security assessment by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in late 2021, Maricopa reinforced the doors, added shatterproof film to the windows and purchased more first aid kits, the documents state.
But the harassment continued.
“This goes beyond just on-site security. It’s a mental health issue,” Jarrett, the county elections director, wrote in an email to county officials two days after the election.
“I have great respect for free speech and welcome public input,” Jarrett added. “However, allowing this predatory activity harms and threatens the viability of the election department.”
Reporting by Linda So, Peter Eisler and Jason Szep; Editing by Suzanne Goldenberg
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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