November 6 (Reuters) – Election workers in Arizona’s most fiercely contested county faced more than 100 violent threats and intimidating communications ahead of Tuesday’s midterms, most based on conspiracy theories campaign promoted by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
Harassment in Maricopa County included threatening emails and social media posts, threats to release personal information online and photograph employees arriving at work, according to nearly 1,600 pages of documents obtained by Reuters via a public records request for security records and correspondence related to threats and harassment against election workers.
Between July 11 and August 22, the county election office documented at least 140 threats and other hostile communications, records show. “You will all be executed,” said one. “Thread around their limbs and tied and dragged by a car,” wrote another.
The documents reveal the consequences of election conspiracy theories as voters nominated candidates in August to run for midterms. Numerous threats in Maricopa County, which helped propel President Joe Biden to victory over Trump in 2020, cited debunked allegations of fake ballots, rigged voting machines and corrupt election officials.
Other jurisdictions nationwide have seen threats and harassment this year by the former president’s supporters and prominent Republican figures who question the legitimacy of the 2020 election, according to interviews with Republican and Democratic election officials in 10 states.
The threats come at a time when growing concern about the risk of political violence, highlighted by the Oct. 28 attack on the husband of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by a man who embraced right-wing conspiracy theories.
In Maricopa, a county of 4.5 million people that includes Phoenix, the harassment has baffled some election workers, according to previously unreported incidents documented in emails and interviews with county officials.
A number of temporary workers quit after being accosted outside the main counting center after the Aug. 2 primary, Stephen Richer, the county clerk who helps oversee the Maricopa election, said in an interview. A temporary employee broke down in tears after a stranger photographed her, according to an email from Richer to county officials. The unidentified worker left work early and never returned.
She was not a political person, she told Richer. She just wanted a job.
On August 3, unknown individuals in tactical gear calling themselves “First Amendment auditors” surrounded the Department of Elections building, pointing cameras at employees and the license plates of their vehicles. The people have promised to continue midterm monitoring, according to an Aug. 4 email from Maricopa Chief Electoral Officer Scott Jarrett to county officials.
“It sounds very much like predatory behavior and that we are being stalked,” Jarrett wrote.
Since the 2020 elections, Reuters documented more than 1,000 intimidating messages to election officials across the country, including more than 120 that could warrant prosecution, legal experts say.
Many officials said they had hoped the harassment would lessen over time after the 2020 results were confirmed. But the attacks have persisted, fueled in many cases by right-wing figures and media groups that continue without evidence. to portray election officials as complicit in a vast conspiracy by China, Democratic officials and voting material makers to deny Trump a second presidential term.
In April, local election officials in Arizona participated in a drill simulating violence at a polling station in which several people were killed, according to an April 26 email from Lisa Marra, president of the Election Officials of Arizona, which represents election administrators in the state’s 15 counties. The drill was meant to help officials prepare for Election Day violence and left participants “understandably unsettled,” the email to more than a dozen local election officers said.
In a statement, Marra said, “This is just another tool we can use to make elections safe for everyone.”
Maricopa officials have at times appeared overwhelmed by threatening messages on social media and right-wing message boards calling for workers to be executed or hanged. Some messages sought the home addresses of officials, including one that promised “night visits.” Employees were filmed arriving and leaving work, according to emails among county officials.
Two days after the August 2 primary election, the county’s information security officer emailed the FBI asking for help.
“I appreciate the limits of what the FBI can do, but I just want to point this out,” wrote Michael Moore, chief information security officer for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office. “Our staff are intimidated and threatened,” he added. “We’re going to continue to find it harder and harder to get the job done when nobody wants to work for the election.”
An FBI special agent acknowledged the agency’s limitations, according to the emails. “As you said, we are limited in what we can do – we only investigate violations of federal law,” the FBI agent replied in an Aug. 4 email. Reporting the threats to local law enforcement is “the only thing I can suggest,” the agent wrote, “although at this stage it has not resulted in any action.”
The FBI declined to comment on the agent’s response to Moore. He also declined to confirm or deny the existence of ongoing investigations into the threats.
Moore did not respond to requests for comment, but Richer, his boss, said in a statement that he greatly appreciates the FBI’s partnership and vigilance. “This is an inherently emotional subject – communications of the vilest nature have repeatedly been sent to my team,” the statement read.
An anonymous sender using the ProtonMail email service sent “harassing emails” for nearly a year, Moore wrote in an Aug. 4 email to the FBI. A message warned Richer that he would be “hanged as a traitor”.
“I wish I had a black and white poster in my office of you hanging on a rope,” the sender wrote.
Harassment and threats affected the mental health of election workers, Jarrett wrote in his Aug. 4 memo. “If our permanent and temporary staff do not feel safe, we will not be able to (re) recruit and retain staff for the next election.”
In total, county officials referred at least 100 social media messages and posts to FBI and state counterterrorism officials. Reuters found no evidence in the correspondence that officials viewed any of the messages as a violation of the broad definition of freedom of expression protected by the Constitution and passage through the territory of a threat liable to prosecution.
The US Department of Justice declined to comment on specific ongoing investigations, but said it has opened dozens of cases nationwide involving threats against election officials. Eight people face federal charges for uttering threats, including two that targeted Maricopa County officials.
DOJ spokesman Joshua Stueve said that while the “overwhelming majority” of complaints the agency receives “do not include a threat of unlawful violence”, he said the messages were “often hostile, harassing and abusive” towards election officials and their staff. “They deserve better,” Stueve said.
Misinformation on right-wing websites and social media has fueled much of the hostility toward poll workers, according to internal messaging from Maricopa officials.
On July 31, the Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump website with a history of publishing false stories, reported that a Maricopa County election official allowed a staff technician unauthorized access to a computer server room. , where he had deleted 2020 election data that was ready for audit. The website published the names and photos of the official and technician; readers responded with threats against both.
“Until we start hanging these wrongdoers, nothing will change,” one reader wrote in the Gateway Pundit’s comments section. Another death suggestion for the IT technician identified in the story: “hang this crook on (the) nearest tree so people can see what happens to traitors.”
The technology hadn’t removed anything, according to a Maricopa spokesperson. The county chief election officer had asked him to shut down the server for delivery to the Arizona State Senate in response to a subpoena. A review of server records confirmed that nothing had been deleted, the spokesman told Reuters, and all data from the 2020 election had been archived and retained months earlier.
Election workers singled out in Gateway Pundit articles “tend to be targeted” for threats and harassing messages, Moore, the county’s chief information security officer, said in an email from the November 18, 2021 to the FBI. These stories, he added, are often “grossly inaccurate”. A Reuters investigation published last December found the Gateway Pundit quoted in more than 100 threatening and hostile communications to 25 poll workers in the year following the 2020 election.
Other right-wing news outlets and commentators drew similar hostile comments in response to their allegations against Maricopa officials. In August, right-wing provocateur Charlie Kirk posted a comment in Telegram accusing Richer, the county recorder, and “his cronies” of making the Arizona election “a Third World circus.”
“When do we start hanging these people for treason? a reader commented. Another simply added: “Kill them.
The Gateway Pundit and Kirk did not respond to requests for comment.
After a security assessment by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in late 2021, Maricopa reinforced doors, added shatterproof film to windows and purchased more first aid kits, the documents show.
But the harassment continued.
“It goes beyond just on-site security. It’s a mental health issue,” Jarrett, the county’s chief electoral officer, wrote in an email to county officials two days after the primary.
“I greatly respect free speech and welcome public scrutiny,” Jarrett added. “However, allowing this predatory activity to occur is detrimental and threatens the viability of the Department of Elections.”
Reporting by Linda So, Peter Eisler and Jason Szep; Editing by Suzanne Goldenberg
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