Online threats inundate election workers

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Since the 2020 election, threats have followed Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) on her Facebook and Instagram pages, in her email inbox and Twitter feed, and on fringe social media .

“Watch your back,” one Facebook post read. “I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP, I SEE YOU SLEEP. BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID.”

“Penalty for treason? Hanging or firing squad. You can choose Griswold,” an Instagram comment read.

Griswold’s office has identified hundreds of other threats against her since 2020, when she said Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results exposed her to a torrent of abuse. While her office is in communication with major tech companies to combat harassment and misinformation, she said it’s clear Silicon Valley isn’t responding adequately.

“The ‘big lie’ and misinformation about the election was used to push voter suppression, destabilize the election, corrode trust and that led to political violence,” Griswold said. “It’s a huge problem.”

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The flood of online harassment Griswold has endured over the past two years is indicative of a wave of threats that have targeted election workers at all levels, from secretaries of state to poll workers. Election experts say the threats are a direct result of false narratives about the 2020 election that have spread in part on social media and have catapulted once-obscure administrators and county officials to the center of viral hoaxes and theories of the conspiracy.

Election officials who have been targeted online and law enforcement officials are bracing for a new wave of threats on Election Day and its aftermath, when new allegations of voter fraud are expected to lead to more violent rhetoric online .

The FBI declined to comment for this story. Last month, the agency issued a warning about threats against election workers and said it continues to “prioritize the identification, mitigation and investigation of threats against election workers.” He asked the public to submit information related to election crimes through local offices or his website.

Jen Easterly, director of the government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told a forum last week that local law enforcement also played a vital role in securing the election. CISA spent several weeks doing nationwide trainings on how to de-escalate situations.

“Securing elections is a nonpartisan activity, and there is no room for threats,” she said. “It is unacceptable.”

Election officials across the country, including in competitive states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania, say the threats come in waves and track what’s happening in the news. Allie Bones, Arizona’s assistant secretary of state, said her office expects Election Day week to be “active.”

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The ongoing harassment has contributed to high turnover among election officials across the country. According to a survey released earlier this year by New York University Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, 1 in 5 election officials are unlikely to continue serving until 2024. Politicians’ attacks on the system and stress are the main reasons they consider leaving, according to the study.

“It’s a daily challenge,” said Lisa Deeley, who as chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners oversees the city’s elections. “Work has changed so much because every day you get thrown out the kitchen sink, all the vegetables in the fridge, and all the sheets and towels in the linen closet.”

Election officials across the country say they are in communication with major tech platforms to address any new threats. Election officials in states such as Arizona, New Mexico and Pennsylvania say they have had conversations with representatives of companies such as Facebook and Twitter where the issue of election-related threats has been discussed.

Twitter, which recently laid off most of its communications staff, did not respond to a request for comment. The company has long had a policy prohibiting threats against election officials and continues to enforce it, said a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the company’s election plans. . Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, earlier this year shared guidance with CISA and all 50 election offices outlining how to help election officials stay safe online.

“We encourage anyone who encounters potentially infringing content to use the many reporting tools we make available directly within our apps so that we can quickly review it,” Meta spokesperson Dani Lever said. “We have also expanded our policies to address coordinated harassment and threats of violence against election officials and election officials.”

But most states and counties don’t have dedicated personnel to monitor the extent of ongoing threats.

On Election Day, the Arizona Secretary of State’s office will rely on a group of interns to keep tabs on what’s going on online, though their main focus will be to answer any questions people are asking about the vote.

“We don’t have security personnel monitoring all comments,” Bones said. “It’s quite traumatic having to go through all that and see what people are saying about you, your office or your boss.”

And fringe social networks or more private discussion channels, where researchers say much of the most violent rhetoric occurs, remain a blind spot for most election officials.

As the election approached, there were multiple threats generally against people counting ballots on sites such as Gab and .win forums. On Gab, people shared images of guns with captions such as “When it takes too long to count the ballots and it drags on into another day” and “When the windows are covered for count the illegal ballots”.

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Since the 2020 elections, increased efforts have been made to address threats against election officials, online and offline. The Department of Justice launched a task force in 2021 focused on protecting election officials. By August, the task force had reviewed more than 1,000 “harassing contacts” directed at election workers, and about 11% had met the threshold for a federal criminal investigation. The task force said it is indicting four federal cases and joining one other case. There have also been several lawsuits.

However, frontline election officials say these lawsuits represent only a fraction of the threats they receive.

At the state level, there has been increased pressure to pass legislation. Washington state recently passed a law that would make it a crime to threaten an election worker online, and Colorado now has a law that would prohibit posting an election official’s information online to harass them. Other states are considering similar measures.

Online threats and doxing against election officials were the focus of the Jan. 6 Congressional Committee hearings. Al Schmidt, a former Republican Philadelphia City Commissioner, told the committee that after Trump tweeted about him, he and his family received death threats. Shaye Moss, an election operative from Georgia, said she was stunned to see horrific threats flooding her Facebook Messenger inbox after Rudy Giuliani, then Trump’s top campaign lawyer, publicly claimed that she and his mother had rigged the election results.

“Lots of threats wishing me dead, telling me I’ll be in jail with my mum and saying things like, ‘Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920,'” she said.

David Becker, executive director and founder of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Election Research and Innovation, said the threats come not because officials “did something wrong, but because they achieved the greatest success in the history of democracy” in 2020. .

“There’s a real toll taken here from real human beings,” Becker said. “There is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. Election officials don’t get rich and famous. Your best-case scenario as an election official is anonymity.

Tim Starks contributed to this report.

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