BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — After polls closed during New Mexico’s primaries last month, a worker returning ballots and other election materials to the Santa Fe clerk’s office was followed by a partisan election observer driving so close that a few centimeters separated their bumpers.
The poll worker was so shaken by the ordeal that she said she might not return for the upcoming November election, according to Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark.
The incident is just one of many in which election officials and workers have felt threatened since the 2020 presidential election and false claims that it was stolen from former President Donald Trump. A federal effort to investigate these threats has so far resulted in three prosecutions since its launch a year ago.
Meanwhile, the harassment and death threats have not ceased against those who pushed back against the false statements. The threats have contributed to an exodus of election officials across the country, particularly at the local level, and have made recruiting poll workers even more difficult, adding to the challenges of holding a smooth election in the fall.
“I’m a Republican recorder living in a Republican county where the candidate they wanted to win won 2-1 in that county and continue to grieve, as do my staff,” said Leslie Hoffman, the top official. elections. in Yavapai County, Arizona.
Hoffman announced last week that she was resigning to take another job, saying her decision was largely motivated by “the wickedness that we have faced.” Hoffman said the county’s chief electoral officer left for the same reasons.
On Friday, a US Department of Justice official met with state election officials gathered in Louisiana for their summer conference and briefed them on the work of a special task force, announced a year ago.
Three men have been charged by federal prosecutors, with one pleading guilty last month. In this case, the Secretary of State of Colorado, Jena Griswold, was the subject of several threatening messages on social networks.
Griswold said the threats have not stopped. Just last week, a caller to the public phone line from his office said, “Hey, I have a message for the secretary and I want you to deliver it. The angel of death comes for her in the name of Jesus Christ.
“The fact is they’ve only filed three lawsuits when we know there are literally thousands and thousands of violent threats against election workers and secretaries of state,” Griswold said. . “People are using threats in the attack on democracy to try to intimidate election workers, to try to intimidate county clerks and secretaries of state, and they’re successful in some places.”
Robert Heberle, deputy chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, told state election officials Friday that federal investigators are reviewing each report to determine which cases can be prosecuted. He noted difficulties in attributing threats often made anonymously and meeting a legal standard of proving a “serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence”.
Heberle reviewed a few examples in which the threats were hostile but vague and would need further evidence to prosecute. He encouraged state secretaries to continue to report all threats and said that law enforcement contacting those making threats could deter them from doing so again.
“I can assure you that we take this set of issues, threats against election workers, election officials — whether elected, appointed or volunteers — incredibly seriously,” Heberle said. “We understand the seriousness of the problem.”
He said dozens of cases were still under investigation and more prosecutions were expected.
A survey released earlier this year by NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election officials knew someone who quit their job in part because of threats and intimidation, and that one in six had personally been threatened.
Federal and state election officials and Trump’s attorney general said there was no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president’s fraud allegations have also been thrown out by the courts, including by Trump-appointed judges.
Experts said it was essential that those making threats be held accountable to deter others from thinking they may do the same.
“The steps the task force has taken, election officials are grateful. But absolutely, there’s still a long way to go,” said Liz Howard, a former state election official from Virginia, currently at the Brennan Center.
Among the recommendations the Brennan Center has made is expanding the task force to include state and local law enforcement agencies that are typically the first point of contact for an election official.
A group of former and current election officials and law enforcement officials recently formed the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, which plans to provide advice and training to prevent and respond to threats and violence against election officials.
Last month, the United States Election Assistance Commission – which distributes federal grants to election offices – said its funding could be used to protect election officials from threats. Legislation has also been pursued at the state and federal level to increase penalties for those who target election workers.
In Colorado, lawmakers have passed a bill that makes it a crime to disclose the personal information of election officials online for the purpose of threatening them or their families.
On Capitol Hill, Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, held a hearing last year highlighting the threats and calling for federal protections for election workers. Klobuchar and other Senate Democrats sent a letter asking the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to issue a joint announcement to local law enforcement to “ensure they are aware of both the recent increase in such threats against election officials and federal resources to report and counter them.
Back in Santa Fe, County Clerk Clark said anxiety remained high among her staff. Employees have been trained on active fire situations, they have requested the installation of bulletproof glass and GPS tracking is used when transporting ballot boxes.
Although she is concerned about her safety, she says she is not ready to step down or change careers, noting her responsibility to the voters who elected her.
“My dad served in the military, my grandfather served in the military,” Clark said. “I don’t think it’s bad enough yet to feel like my public service is too much.”
Associated Press writers Bob Christie in Phoenix and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico contributed to this report.