Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. Sign up for our free newsletters here.
Maricopa County Supervisors Chairman Clint Hickman held it together in a federal courtroom in Phoenix on Monday until it was about his family.
Hickman told a judge that he remembers the night in 2020 that dozens of protesters — propelled by lies about the fairness of the county’s presidential election — came to his home while his wife and young children were inside. He remembers the years of harassment against him and his colleagues. He remembers the moment he saw that his teenage son understood his choice to not respond to the hatred with a physical confrontation or violence.
“My son looked at me and he understood me,” he said, choking on his words.
Behind him at the defendant’s table as he spoke sat Mark Rissi of Cedar Rapids, Iowa – one of many who had threatened him.
A few days after the release of the results of the partisan “audit” of the county’s 2020 election, in September 2021, Rissi called Hickman’s office phone and accused him of lying about the fairness of the election, told him he was going to die, and said “we’re going to hang you.”
He called former Attorney General Mark Brnovich a few months later with a similar threat.
U.S. District Judge Dominic W. Lanza on Monday sentenced Rissi, 65, to two-and-a-half years in prison and three years of probation after Rissi pleaded guilty to two counts of making interstate threats. Lanza called the threats an “extremely serious offense,” and said these kinds of threats reverberate through the election system as a whole.
“Those dissatisfied with election results cannot threaten public officials and election officials,” Lanza said. “This is an unambiguous and uncrossable line, and there need to be serious consequences.”
The sentencing is one example of the accountability starting to arrive for those who spread lies and threatened public officials about the fairness of the 2020 and 2022 elections, in Arizona and across the country.
It comes in the midst of indictments against former President Donald Trump and his allies, as lawyers who brought frivolous election fraud lawsuits are sanctioned in court, and as courts hear multiple defamation cases from companies such as Dominion Voting Systems and individuals such as Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer.
Rissi is one of four men recently charged or convicted for threatening Arizona election officials since the 2020 election.
Earlier this month, a Massachusetts man pleaded guilty in federal court to sending a bomb threat to Gov. Katie Hobbs in February 2021, when she was Arizona’s secretary of state. In another case, a Texas man earlier this month was sentenced to three and a half years in federal prison after threatening Richer and a county attorney, Tom Liddy, on social media. And In June, a Phoenix man was charged by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office with sending a threatening email in November 2022 to Supervisor Bill Gates.
Gates has said the threats against him have contributed to his post-traumatic stress disorder, Richer has said he has been defamed and it has impacted his family, and countless election officials have resigned, citing harassment.
On Monday, Rissi told the judge he was remorseful, saying that he was misled by misinformation about elections. But the judge said upon sentencing him that when the FBI interviewed him in June 2022, while he backed off his statements, he still wished violent harm on election officials.
Rissi clarified to the FBI that he “didn’t want anyone to be lynched or hanged illegally, but a lot of people still need to be hanged,” Lanza said, prompting audible gasps in the courtroom.
Gates, Liddy, Richer, and other county staff had filled the gallery in support of Hickman. Walking out of the courthouse, Hickman tried to hold back tears when asked what the sentencing was like for him.
“I just hope it ends,” he told Votebeat. “I hope it ends, for my family. This does seem to be a strategy to get people to not consider public service. So hopefully, what occurred today will throw a wet blanket on some of these strategies.”
‘You’re gonna die’
The threats against Hickman, his fellow supervisors, and other Arizona election officials have gone on for years now.
On Sept. 24, contractors conducting a partisan review of Maricopa’s election released a report confirming Biden’s 2020 win in Arizona.
Three days later, Rissi called Hickman’s office phone and left him an anonymous voicemail:
“I am glad that you are standing up for democracy and want to place your hand on the Bible and say that the election was honest and fair. I really appreciate that. When we come to lynch your stupid lying Commie ass, you’ll remember that you lied on the fucking Bible, you piece of shit. You’re gonna die, you piece of shit. We’re going to hang you. We’re going to hang you.”
Months later, on Dec. 8, Rissi called Brnovich and left him an anonymous voicemail on his office phone:
“I’m a victim of a crime. My family is a victim of a crime. My extended family is a victim of a crime. That crime was the theft of the 2020 election. The election that was fraudulent across the state of Arizona, that [Brnovich] knows was fraudulent, that [Brnovich] has images of the conspirators deleting election fraud data from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors computer system. Do your job … or you will hang with those son-of-a-bitches in the end. We will see to it. Torches and pitchforks. That’s your future, dipshit. Do your job.”
In his pleading to the court, Rissi wrote that he had made the first threat to Hickman in a “weakened emotional state,” while suffering from depression from his mother’s recent death, experiencing medical issues, and was also was “inundated with misinformation and exaggerations regarding the election process in Arizona.”
On Monday, he and his lawyer, Anthony Knowles, attempted to convince Lanza that Rissi should only serve 12 months and 1 day in prison.
Knowles said Rissi takes responsibility for making the threats, but he had no intention of harming anyone and no criminal record.
Rissi started by apologizing to the victims, but did not look back to where Hickman sat.
Rissi then explained how he had spent time with his mother in hospice before making the threats and blamed the COVID-19 vaccine for his mother’s death, saying the vaccine caused her to develop blood clots and strokes.
Choking up, he said had taken sleeping and pain pills to try to get some sleep. He said he doesn’t remember leaving one of the messages.
“More than anything else, I’d like to be forgiven for what I said,” he said.
‘They are also threats to democracy’
U.S. Attorney Tanya Senanayake, on behalf of Brnovich and Hickman, asked Lanza to sentence Rissi to 24 months. She said that Rissi’s words were intentional, menacing, and were threats not only to the public officials he called, but to the entire election system.
“In that way, they are also threats to democracy,” she said.
Senanayake pointed to the mass resignations taking place among election officials across the country, as many face threats such as this. In the last two years, 13 of 15 counties in Arizona have seen top election officials leave their positions.
She read a statement from Brnovich in which he said that those who threaten election officials “must be held accountable.”
Hickman, 58, spoke of how much the threats have impacted his family, and how he was grateful that his sons got to see his strong and convicted response.
He told a story about watching a theater production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” with his son, and said that when watching Atticus Finch, his son understood why his father didn’t choose violence, despite the threats against him.
Hickman said it enrages him when he hears people say death threats are wrong “but they shouldn’t have rigged an election.”
“If you’re going to talk like that, we will never get out of this environment,” Hickman said.
David Becker, executive director of the national nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, called Monday’s sentencing “justice.” He said he is glad to start to see accountability – in this case and many others.
The accountability is heartening to election officials, he said, “especially as they are still experiencing abuse and harassment to this day, and in some cases it is ramping up.”
A federal task force convened a year ago to investigate harassment against election officials. It has so far led to four new federal cases, according to an Aug. 1 update. It’s unclear if the three federal Arizona cases are included in that tally.
After reviewing more than 1,000 reports of harassment, 11% were found to contain a threat of unlawful violence that met the threshold for federal investigation – most of them in swing states.
After the Monday hearing, Rissi told Votebeat that anyone who commits a crime “should think about the consequences to family and their finances.”
He declined to comment on whether he still believes the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at email@example.com.