US election officials face ‘new era’ of violent threats, taskforce chief warns

US election officials face ‘new era’ of violent threats, taskforce chief warns

Election officials across the US are facing an onslaught of unfounded hostility for “dutifully and reliably doing their jobs”, the head of a federal taskforce set up to protect the election community from violent threats said on Monday.

John Keller, who leads the day-to-day efforts of the election threats taskforce, based in Washington, told reporters that the wave of violent threats – unleashed by Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen – amounted to an attack “on the very foundation of our democracy – our elections”.

He said that the US had entered a “new era” in which the election community “is scapegoated, targeted and attacked”.

On Monday, the taskforce, founded in June 2021, secured its 10th sentence of a perpetrator of violent threats against an election official.

Speaking in Phoenix, Arizona, after the sentencing, Keller said robust public scrutiny of government authority and officials was “desirable and necessary”. But he added: “Death threats are not debate; death threats are not first-amendment protected speech. Death threats are condemnable criminal acts that will be met with the full force of the Department of Justice.”

Monday’s sentencing at a federal district court in Phoenix saw Joshua Russell of Bucyrus, Ohio, given 30 months in prison. He had pleaded guilty to one count of making a threatening communication across state lines.

According to court documents, between August and November 2022 Russell recorded three threatening voicemails on the phone of Katie Hobbs, the current Democratic governor of Arizona. At the time she was Arizona’s secretary of state, its top election administrator.

In his voicemails, Russell accused Hobbs of committing election fraud in Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election which Joe Biden won in Arizona by about 10,000 votes. He called her a communist, a traitor, and “an enemy of the United States”.

“You better put your [expletive] affairs in order, ‘cos your days are extremely numbered. America’s coming for you, and you will pay with your life.”

In a November voicemail, Russell said: “A war is coming for you. The entire nation is coming for you. And we will stop, at no end, until you are in the ground.”

Russell was the second sentenced this month for threatening Hobbs when she was Arizona’s secretary of state. Earlier this month, James Clark from Massachusetts was sentenced to three and half years in prison for threatening to detonate explosives he claimed to have planted in her personal space.

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Keller, who is the principal deputy chief of the public integrity section of the DoJ’s criminal division, said the taskforce was working with state and local law enforcement to stop the onslaught as Arizona and the country approaches November’s presidential election. He said: “This behavior is insidious, with potentially grave consequences for individual victims and for the institution of election administration as a whole.”

Arizona, which has been a critical battleground state in recent presidential contests, has become the ground zero of threats against election officials in the US. Seven of the 16 cases that have been prosecuted nationally under the election threats taskforce were targeted on the state, especially on Maricopa county, the largest constituency, which covers Phoenix.

In the wake of the attacks, there has been a severe shortage of election officials who have quit after they and, in some cases, their families have been violently threatened. Twelve out of the 15 counties in the state have lost at least one of their two top election administrators since Trump launched his attack on democracy in 2020.

Gary Restaino, US attorney for Arizona, said the common denominator of the cases handled by the taskforce was “election denialists announcing an intent to violently punish those who they believe have wronged them”.

He said: “There’s no constitutional right to vigilantism. Let these cases be a lesson not to take the rule of law into one’s own hands.”

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