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Police can’t stop the threats to election workers

Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Shay Horse / NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Reuters has followed up its excellent coverage of election worker harassment by locating and interviewing nine of the people who have made some of the threats. The report this week by Linda So and Jason Szep builds on So’s investigation in September that documented more than 100 violent threats experts say could be legally actionable. “But law enforcement agencies,” they write, “have made almost no arrests and won no convictions. In many cases, they didn’t investigate.

This is substantially true. Election administrators have repeatedly and full-throatedly said they need additional support in coping with these threats, and in recent months the federal government appears to be slowly moving toward action. But much is left to be done to prevent this hostile atmosphere from pushing more election administrators out of this line of work. As the story points out, Rep. John Sarbanes proposed legislation in June that would make it a federal crime to threaten an election worker. The bill, like every other Democratic voting measure in Congress, is nowhere close to passing.

And certainly law enforcement’s lack of interest in investigating, as described in the report, is troubling. For example, in one case in Vermont, police said the phone number the calls came from was “essentially untraceable.” The reporters simply called it, and there the man was, willing to talk. This article does a fantastic job pointing out “America’s patchwork of state laws governing criminal threats, which provide varying levels of protection for free speech and make local officials in some states reluctant to prosecute such cases.”

But it’s also important to address the limitations of this article, even as So and Szep have done a public service by identifying these nine people and documenting their motivations. Consider the article’s other key takeaway: “The examination of the threats also highlights the paralysis of law enforcement in responding to this extraordinary assault on the nation’s electoral machinery.” It would be easy to interpret that as casting blame on police for inaction, as many commentators have done. But it’s not that simple.

First, I want to be clear about what I’m not saying: I am not saying that we should ignore these threats. I am not saying that this reporting doesn’t merit the time and intense effort that So and Szep clearly invested. But I am saying that local police are not going to solve this problem for us. They can’t, and I’m not sure many of us would determine it was the best use of their limited resources. After all, in most cases it’s a hefty task: finding people, who likely don’t even live in the same state, and criminally charging them for making a telephone threat to a person hundreds of miles away.

Reuters started with 100 cases that legal experts had determined could be legally actionable and dug up contact info for two dozen of those people, then got nine of them to speak on the record. To get the Vermont man to admit what he’d done, for example, reporters spent “five conversations over four days spanning more than three hours” talking to him. After all of this, police still ultimately determined they wouldn’t bring charges because the case wasn’t really a slam dunk. The man said vile things, such as “This might be a good time to put a f— pistol in your f— mouth and pull the trigger,” but there’s a high standard in Vermont for prosecuting someone for a threat against a public official. The man hadn’t named any individual or offered a specific threat, and prosecutors determined the charge was unlikely to withstand a trial.

Consider, also, that two well-resourced journalists for Reuters — a multinational company with far more access to information and more independence to pursue leads than any local police station — were able to reach only nine of the 100 people whose threats they initially identified. Two months passed in between the publication of the two articles. I struggle to think of a police station that would be able to spare two officers for a weeks-long investigation that stands only a 10 percent chance of success at contacting the caller, and an even smaller chance at being able to bring charges. And if charges were brought, they’d probably be low level.

Of the nine people So and Szep interviewed, seven had called administrators from outside of their state, making it next to impossible for the local police to do anything about it in the first place. Calls from out of state, as many election administrators will tell you, were frustratingly common during the 2020 election. Even as far back as Georgia’s June primary, I found that over one third of the calls to the secretary of state’s office for any reason — to make a threat or to ask a question — came from numbers outside of the state.

So, really, the paralysis of local law enforcement is understandable — the people behind these threats are pretty hard to find and even harder to prosecute. This is simply not a problem that local law enforcement agencies can handle. Instead, we need to turn our attention to the root cause — the disinformation that inspires these acts, spread by political and media figures and the social media platforms that allow misinformation to proliferate. These callers aren’t making threats for no reason. They are making threats because they were encouraged to, or because they were given willfully false information by people they trusted and felt the need to act on it with aggression.

Focusing on fighting this deeper force is not as satisfying as throwing someone behind bars or publicly naming a person who has harassed a dedicated election official, and is also a lot to ask. This is going to take a radical commitment to reclaiming a common set of facts — such as the truth that U.S. elections generally have robust safeguards to keep them secure and that fraud is rare. And that begins with honesty from politicians and the media, as well as from anyone else who holds influence over public perceptions of our electoral system. The folks who made these threats didn’t decide to do it in a vacuum, as the Reuters article makes clear. We stand a better chance at preventing hostilities against election administrators by removing the motivation leading these people to pick up the phone.

Back Then

It might be unusual to rely on the police to respond to people threatening poll workers, but it certainly isn’t unusual for police to be doing the threatening. During the days of the poll tax in Louisiana in the early 20th century, local sheriffs were infamous for buying votes, intimidating voters, and selectively paying for the poll tax of voters. Famously, Huey Long, the Louisiana governor who was elected in 1928 and later served in the U.S. Senate until he was assassinated, spearheaded the movement to abolish state’s poll tax. It was an effort both to sway poor white voters who could not afford the tax, and to usurp some of the power of those sheriffs. Some white voters objected that abolishing the poll tax would, logically, also enfranchise poor Black voters. Long rejected those concerns, knowing that other laws would prevent Black voters from casting a ballot, with or without the tax.

In Other Voting News

  • Dominion is continuing its campaign of lawsuits against the biggest perpetrators of baseless conspiracy theories about the security of its voting machines in 2020. This time, it’s Fox Corp. Dominion is seeking documents on the election from the Murdoch family. Any such documents that come out should be fascinating.
  • A controversial proposal by Republicans in Michigan to limit the types of locations that can be “donated” for voting — such as churches, schools, and senior centers — would result in a 20 percent decrease in polling places, Progress Michigan has found. In several counties and townships, it would mean cutting the number of locations by half. One clerk who relies on churches for 12 of her 16 polling sites notes, “It’s starting to create panic about how we are going to manage this.”
  • Local election officials in Montana have told the Helena Independent Record they fear the secretary of state’s office may be rushing through the implementation of the state’s new election system, a giant piece of software to manage the statewide voter database. They say the secretary has not been responsive to concerns and that they have “no faith” in the current operability of the system, though they believe with appropriate implementation it will be effective.
  • Steve Hobbs is the new secretary of state in Washington, replacing Kim Wyman. It marks the first time a Democrat has held the office since the mid-1960s. Hobbs, who is of Japanese descent, will be the first person of color to hold the office. Hobbs was previously a state senator, and had a long career in the U.S. military.
  • The Mesa County, Colorado, employee arrested for allegedly helping Clerk Tina Peters steal information from the county has now been fired. Sandra Brown has indicated she plans to sue the county on unspecified civil rights violations and said that her firing was a coordinated political hit job by the state’s Democratic secretary of state. While we are talking Colorado conspiracy theorists: The Colorado Times Recorder has created this handy list of politicians and candidates who claim the 2020 election was rigged.
  • County clerks in Georgia are raising concerns that they may not have enough time to adequately coordinate new precincts and educate voters about the changes, given the delayed redistricting process. They tell Axios they have raised these issues with the state but aren’t seeing much urgency. “You’re backing us into a corner that we might not be able to crawl back out of,” one registrar said of the Legislature.
  • The elections director of Hood County, Texas, resigned this week and announced her bid to unseat the county clerk who had attempted to have her fired this summer. Michele Carew, the former administrator who wrote in the Washington Post recently about the conflict and harassment she has faced, will be on a ballot she once would have been responsible for creating, facing off against Katie Lang next year.
  • That crazy council race in Portland, Maine, that originally ended in a tie between two Democrats has now concluded — with a twist. After the city clerk tried to determine a winner last week by drawing one candidate’s name out of a bowl, the losing candidate called for a hand recount. This week, that recount found that he actually had a 35-vote advantage, even as lawyers from both campaigns disputed voter intent in 37 ballots. Rather than contest the result further, his opponent, the winner of the bowl-draw, conceded with a handshake.

In Remembrance

Today, a sad note. Ruth Huneycutt, the longtime director of the Davidson County, North Carolina, Board of Elections, died suddenly this week. She was 82. Huneycutt began working at the Davidson County election office in 1973 and became director in 1983. The Dispatch notes that though her retirement was rumored for years, Huneycutt enjoyed her job, and worked until the day of her death. “She knew more about elections than most people in the state,” said Jon Myers, a local judge. “She had such a depth of knowledge and love for the electoral process… She was always professional and treated everyone the same. From an administrative side, it was important to her that everything should be fair and impartial.”

Votebeat applauds Ruth for her decades of service to the voters of Davidson County.

We’ll go out on a happy note, though:

Congratulations to seventh-grader Layla M. Gonzalez for winning El Paso County’s contest for its 2022 “I Voted” Sticker Contest! Layla designed — can I just say as a Texan — an absolutely dope Texas-themed sticker, complete with a prickly pear.

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