Amid unhinged attacks from Donald Trump last year, Gabriel Sterling, a top Republican election official in Georgia, was forced to have police protection at his home. Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, also received threats, as did his wife. But what really got Sterling’s blood pressure up—the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” as he put it—were the threats directed toward a 20-year-old voting system contractor in suburban Gwinnett County. “I can’t explain the level of anger I have right now over this,” Sterling said in a rebuke of Trump and his allies in December. “Someone is going to get hurt. Someone is going to get shot. Someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.”
His warning turned out to be prescient. A month later, armed pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the Capitol as lawmakers met to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. By the end of the riot, at least on person was dead and hundreds were injured. Four police officers who responded to the siege have died by suicide in the seven months since. Of course, the “big lie” that inspired that attack has not gone anywhere in those months. And neither, it turns out, have the threats to election workers that served as a clear warning for the explosion of violence Trump instigated January 6.
Election officials across the country told the Washington Post on Wednesday that they’re still being bombarded with conspiracy theories and horrific threats of violence. Some of the harassment has occurred on the front lines of Trump’s war on the 2020 results. In Arizona, where a preposterous, partisan “audit” of the vote count in Maricopa County has been dragging on for weeks, the GOP-majority Board of Supervisors that opposes the exercise reportedly received a voicemail that included threats to murder members of the panel and their families. “It’s that concept that we’re somehow not worthy of respect or safety,” Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates told the Post. “That we’re traitors.”
But the attacks haven’t been limited to matters directly related to the 2020 election. Even a vote this month on local tax assessments in Houghton County, Michigan, was plagued by conspiracy theories about the voting system, the county clerk there told the Post. The official, Jennifer Kelly, and others sought to head off suspicion and threats by taking extra precautions and going to added lengths to assure the integrity of the process. But even such measures haven’t seemed to head off harassment—something that’s already weighing on once-anonymous election workers and that could have an impact on future votes. As Susan Nash, a city clerk in Livonia, Michigan put it: “The complaints, the threats, the abuse, the magnitude of the pressure—it’s too much.”
“There is a scary backlash against these officials,” Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at University of Minnesota, told the Post. “The umpires are leaving the stadium because they are frightened by what has happened after the 2020 election. They don’t want to be threatened anymore.”
As was the case with the threats Sterling decried last year, the abuse is not only troubling on its own, but also for what it could portend. The mobs that gathered at vote counting centers in Michigan and Arizona, outside Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s home as she and her young son put up Christmas decorations, and on the streets of Washington, D.C., turned out to be mere prologue to the destruction that played out at the Capitol in January. Trump’s role in enabling that violence was never in doubt, but each new day seems to bring a story expanding the scope of his misconduct. Just in the last few days, former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen told the Senate that Trump put “persistent” pressure on the Department of Justice to throw out the results of the 2020 election (and nearly replaced him with a pliant underling), and a former United States attorney, Byung J. Pak, told lawmakers he resigned in January after being told by the DOJ that Trump would fire him for refusing to go along with his bogus election claims.
Trump’s attempt to cling to power failed, of course. But, as law enforcement officers who responded to the January 6 attack made clear in testimony last month to House select committee investigators, his “big lie’ has not lost any of its potency. “This threat hasn’t gone away,” Bennie Thompson, the panel’s chair, said in that first hearing. “It looms over our democracy like a dark cloud.”
When Sterling issued his warning in December, the idea that an armed mob, egged on by the president, would be stalking the halls of congress in search of Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and other lawmakers may have seemed far-fetched. But now, we know where conspiracy theories and threats to election officials can lead—and must take the abuse election workers are continuing to endure seriously. Said Colorado election director Judd Choate: “We are in harm’s way as never before.”
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