The U.S. Justice Department is investigating more than 100 cases of threats made against local election officials over the past year, most of them in states that former President Donald Trump lost to President Joe Biden during the 2020 election.
The disclosure was made Monday by the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force during a briefing for a bipartisan group of about 750 election officials and workers.
The task force has reviewed more than 1,000 “contacts” reported as “hostile or harassing” by election workers, determining that 11% of the contacts — made by phone, email, social media, or in person — met the Justice Department’s threshold to open a federal criminal investigation.
That amounts to roughly 110 threats under investigation. But because many of the cases under investigation involved more than one threat, the actual number of ongoing probes is far less than 110, a department spokesman explained.
The task force was set up in June 2021 in response to growing threats against election workers in the aftermath of the contentious 2020 presidential election. Its members review threats reported to the FBI, which has appointed an election crime coordinator at each of its 56 field offices.
The 1,000-plus harassing and hostile contacts made to election officials covered the period from June 2021 to June 2022. The trend continued in July, the task force told the election officials, according to Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, who attended the briefing.
Fifty-eight percent of the potentially criminal threats reported during the 12 months were made in states where Trump challenged his electoral loss or where officials held post-election recounts and audits. These were Arizona, Georgia, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Wisconsin.
In total, 89% of the contacts made to election officials were deemed protected speech and could not be investigated.
“A lot of the questions were aimed at ‘Wait. Really? You can only investigate 11% of cases?’ And them saying, ‘Yes, I'm sorry but we can only investigate things not protected by First Amendment,’” Albert said.
Since its inception last year, the task force has faced criticism for not aggressively investigating and prosecuting threats against election officials.
To date, the group has filed charges in four federal cases and said it expects additional prosecutions in the near future.
In the first conviction secured by the unit, a Nebraska man pleaded guilty in June to threatening an election worker on an Instagram page associated with the official.
“Do you feel safe? You shouldn’t,” Travis Ford allegedly wrote. “Do you think Soros will/can protect you?” and “Your security detail is far too thin and incompetent to protect you. This world is unpredictable these days … anything can happen to anyone.”
Barb Byrum, the Ingham County Clerk in Michigan, said while her office has not received any threats, she knows of other election officials in Michigan who have been the target of “vile messages.”
“One of the email responses that I heard was, if you send me any more emails about this election, I'm going to slit your throat,” Byrum said in an interview with VOA.
The Ingham County Clerk’s office continues to receive messages from people who are convinced that elections are not “safe and secure.”
“And it is very concerning that these same individuals are grocery shopping right next door to election administrators,” she said. “They are in the same school pickup line as me.”
Byrum said the DOJ election threats task force can have a mitigating effect on threats against election workers.
“When people are finally being held accountable, I think the attacks and harassment will decrease,” Byrum said.