Election officials at U.S. Senate hearing describe threats, spread of misinformation
Victoria Chang-Holt fills casts her ballot in Chesterfield County, Va., November 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)
WASHINGTON — Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday explored how to combat violent threats lodged against election officials, while Republicans questioned why the Department of Justice isn’t doing more to investigate threats against crisis pregnancy centers and Supreme Court justices.
During a hearing on protecting election officials, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. discussed how the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force is prosecuting people who have threatened election officials. To date, the task force has investigated more than 1,000 complaints and has prosecuted five people.
The hearing comes as states are preparing for the November midterm election, which many election officials fear could prompt another surge in threats and harassment. A recent national survey found that 1 in 5 election officials say they are somewhat or very unlikely to stay in their jobs through 2024 due to the increased threats and political pressure.
The Senate panel called current and former election officials and members of law enforcement to discuss the threats and potential solutions.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson detailed her first-hand experience, including an incident in which people descended on her home and yelled threats and obscenities into bullhorns while she was putting her young son to sleep.
She described an “omnipresent feeling of anxiety and dread that permeates our home” and pleaded with senators to pass additional protections for her and her colleagues.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she had to leave her home for weeks under state police protection during the 2020 election cycle when she was “doxxed,” meaning her personal information was posted publicly. Her office has also been targeted with threats, some serious enough to refer to law enforcement, and social media trolling that parrots misinformation spread online.
“For the election officials and volunteer poll workers that our elections depend on, I fear that threats and harassment will cause them so much stress and uncertainty that they will simply give up on the work,” she said.
Former Washington secretary of state and current U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency senior election security adviser Kim Wyman teared up during her opening remarks, saying she didn’t want to cry in front of the committee but the opening video detailing violent threats against her colleagues and others left her emotional.
Republicans repeatedly questioned why the Justice Department isn’t investigating threats that have nothing to do with election officials.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas displayed photos of vandalized crisis pregnancy centers in several states, claiming that the politics of the Justice Department “happen to agree with the vandals” so there has been no prioritization of the incidents.
“I am highly concerned that this Department of Justice is politicizing the enforcement of justice,” Cruz said.
Polite responded that politics plays no role in the department’s investigations and prosecutions and that the department takes any incidents of violence seriously.
Cruz also questioned why the Justice Department hasn’t done more to protect Supreme Court justices from protesters at their homes, who he claimed have been encouraged by Democratic rhetoric.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, started the hearing by discussing the pervasive threat of violent crime across the country, making no mention of threats to election officials.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee also spoke about attacks on churches, Supreme Court justices and crisis pregnancy centers, ignoring the topic of the hearing.
Two law enforcement witnesses, like Republicans, focused on general violent crime.
Michael Hurst, Jr., a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, questioned whether the DOJ should devote its “finite time” to threats against election officials when there is a surge in violent crime across the country.
He said that the task force has only prosecuted five cases out of over 1,000 referrals — a number that pales in comparison to the people killed by violent crime in the United States.
Democratic senators eventually criticized Republicans for attempting to minimize or dismiss the legitimate threats facing people in the election community.
“I want to begin by noting how weak and unpersuasive I find the arguments offered here today to try to muddy the waters or suggest that for the federal government and the Department of Justice, the protection of our electoral processes, institutions, and workers is not a vital mission and essential to the functioning of our democracy, absolutely worthy of high-level attention from our department,” said Sen. John Ossoff of Georgia.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chairman of the committee, also chastised his colleagues for continuing to change the subject.
“There might be people who watch this hearing and think, ‘What in the hell is going on here?’” Durbin said. “Why won’t any Republican witness or senators talk about the issue that was the subject matter of this hearing?”
He continued, saying “the answer is very clear and simple and obvious. It means saying the Big Lie is a lie,” something Republicans can’t do politically, he said.
“Violent crime is the subject of 10 hearings, and it may be the subject of 10 more,” he added. “It’s not the reason we’re here today.”
Spread of misinformation
While most of the solutions proposed in the hearing focused on the role of federal law enforcement, witnesses asked the senators to protect election workers against threats in other ways.
Toulouse Oliver said that it’s essential to stop the spread of misinformation and lies. Matt Crane, the executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association and a self-described conservative Republican, asked senators to help make it easier for local election officials to learn about and receive federal funds to help them protect themselves and their offices from security threats. And Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association for State Election Directors, detailed how difficult it’s been for election officials to apply for and receive grants through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, or JAG, program, the largest source of federal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions.
Cohen said the promised funding was not actually available to election officials for physical security and to help pay for a law enforcement presence at their offices.
In requesting more support for security, Cohen noted that unlike law enforcement professionals, election officials did not go into the work knowing it would include threats to their life.
“Election officials did not make that choice,” she said. “Until recently, this was not a field you went into thinking it could cost you your life, and now that it is, we need a whole-of-government response to ensure the safety of our community.”
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