WASHINGTON - Amid growing concern about the safety of the nation’s election officials, the U.S. Justice Department is launching a task force aimed at combating threats against poll workers and administrators.
In a memo issued on Friday, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco directed federal prosecutors and FBI agents to prioritize identifying, investigating and prosecuting such threats.
A recent survey by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election officials felt unsafe while one in six reported receiving work-related threats.
“To protect the franchise for all voters, we must identify threats against those responsible for administering elections, whether federal, state, or local,” wrote Monaco.
“We will promptly and vigorously prosecute offenders to protect the rights of American voters, to punish those who engage in this criminal behavior, and to send the unmistakable message that such conduct will not be tolerated,” she added.
The task force reflects the Justice Department’s more aggressive enforcement of voting rights and civil rights laws since President Joe Biden took office, in contrast to the former Trump administration’s seemingly hands-off approach to the issue.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that the Justice Department is suing the southern U.S. state of Georgia over the recent adoption of voting regulations that the department says are restrictive and discriminatory against African Americans.
Speaking at a press conference, Garland said he directed the new Justice Department initiative on threats against election workers after learning about “a significant number” of threats reported by the media.
There is no hard data on the number of threats against election officials, although there has been plenty of anecdotal evidence of election officials and their families in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan and elsewhere receiving threats. Many officials have blamed former President Donald Trump for inspiring the threats by making false claims the November election had been rigged against him.
“We’d been going after these threats as they occurred, sporadically and individually, but given the collection and the number it became apparent we needed a more focused and prioritized result,” Garland said.
The new task force will be made up of members from the Justice Department’s criminal, civil rights and national security divisions, as well as the FBI, Monaco said. To help the public report threats against election officials, the department is also launching a toll-free hotline.
Speaking at the same press conference, Monaco said the task force is designed to bring “the full resources of the department” to bear on behalf of election officials “whether they’re appointed, whether they’re elected, whether they’re volunteers regardless of party.”
Election experts say Republicans’ baseless claims of election fraud perpetuated on social media by Trump supporters have pushed many into making threats against officials.
In the Brennan Center survey, 78% of local election officials said social media made their jobs “more difficult,” while 54% said they believed social media made their job “more dangerous.”
The threats became so serious that several officials were forced to move out of their homes for their own safety, according to the Brennan Center.
Among them were top Georgia officials including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, who defied Trump’s demand to deliver his state to the former president.
In May, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, reported that a man called her office saying she deserved to die and inquiring what she was wearing “so she’ll be easy to get.”
"It was one of at least three such threats today,” Hobbs tweeted on May 6. “Then a man who I’ve never seen before chased me and my staffer outside of our office.”
The state governor subsequently assigned state troopers to provide Hobbs with round-the-clock protection.
In February, the National Association of Secretaries of State passed a resolution condemning “violence and threats of violence against election workers" and calling "on all leaders to denounce these dangerous occurrences.”
Federal and state Republican officials and lawmakers who have been pressing for tough new voting laws and restrictions insist their goal is more transparency and honesty in the voting process, and not to threaten election officials.