Combating Threats to Election Workers Ahead of the 2024 Election

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The months surrounding the 2022 midterm elections in Arizona were like a powderkeg. The Grand Canyon State was the epicenter of election conspiracy theories in 2020, fueled by former President Donald Trump and his allies. And in 2022, the fervor on the right over another stolen election — based on categorically false allegations of mass voter fraud — reached a boiling point. 

In the days after Arizona’s primary election in August of 2022, an Alabama man left a string of violent, threatening direct messages to an Instagram account maintained by Maricopa County Elections, according to a recently unsealed indictment from the U.S. Department of Justice. “[Y]ou people are so ducking [sic] stupid. Everyone knows you are lots [sic], cheats, frauds and in doing so in relation to elections have committed treason. You will all be executed. Bang [expletive]!” one message said. 

Months later, during the general election in November of 2022, a California man got hold of a Maricopa County election official’s cell phone number and, the day after the county certified the 2022 election results — declaring Democrat Katie Hobbs the winner in the hotly contested gubernatorial race — he left a voicemail. “You wanna cheat our elections? You wanna screw Americans out of true votes? We’re coming, [expletive]. You’d better [expletive] hide,” he said, according to another recently unsealed DOJ indictment.

And in Georgia, two election workers sued Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani for promoting election conspiracy theories in 2020 that directly led to harassment and death threats. “I was afraid for my life,” one of the workers said in a testimony, according to NPR. “I literally felt that someone would attempt to hang me and there was nothing anyone could do about it.” Giuliani was found liable and ordered to pay $148 million to the two workers.

These weren’t isolated incidents but rather part of a growing, unfortunate trend in the last few election cycles: political violence — particularly threats to election workers and public officials — is surging. The 2020 and 2022 elections saw a sharp rise in violence and threats of violence against election workers:more than 40% of state legislators experienced threats or attacks in the past three years, and more than 18% experienced them within the past year and a half, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice. As we barrel head first into the thick of the 2024 election, all signs indicate the problem hasn’t gone away. 

Given everything we know about this alarming trend, are state and local election officials adequately prepared to handle threats of violence and another barrage of misinformation and conspiracy theories that pose an existential threat to the election process? Democracy Docket spoke to extremism researchers and experts from the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE), the Program on Extremism at George Washington University (GWU), Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection about the biggest threats to the 2024 election and what’s being done to address them.

The threat of violence is high (but the election process is still very safe!).

There’s one thing that Shannon Hiller, the executive director of the Bridging Divide Initiative, wants people to know: voting and participating in the electoral process in the United States, especially compared to the rest of the world, is extremely safe. “We’ve had some really tense elections,” she told Democracy Docket. “But even just looking at 2022, a lot of the work that election officials, civil society has done to make sure that voting is still incredibly secure and safe in this country, is continuing to work.” 

At the same time, the risk of violence toward election workers, and those participating in the electoral practice, is higher than it’s been in decades. A recent report from the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center at the University of Nebraska Omaha’ examined every single federally investigated threat toward a public official over the past 10 years and found that 2022 and 2023 had the highest number of threats in that time period. The data, according to the authors of the report, “reflects a growing public acceptance of and tolerance for political violence — attitudes that threaten U.S. institutions and weaken democracy.”

“Election workers and elected officials have found themselves on the receiving end of threats and intimidation fairly consistently,” Mary McCord, the executive director of Georgetown Law’s ICAP, told Democracy Docket. “But obviously, it gets worse in the lead up to an election and then right after an election… And I think, right now, there’s no real reason to think that it’s going to be significantly different.”

That’s especially true after the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Since then, the rise in extremist violence profoundly changed how many people feel about voting. A 2022 poll commissioned by GPAHE found that only 41% of Americans feel safe at polling places, due to the steady rise of mass shootings, political and racial divisions and extremist violence and rhetoric. 

Heidi Beirich, the co-founder and chief strategy officer of GPAHE, told Democracy Docket that she’s preparing for a rise in threats, and possibly violence, this election season. “Emotions are going to be running so high that we have to expect violence of some sort to result ultimately, unfortunately,” she predicted. 

The biggest threat isn’t from a single group, but a network.

The threat of violence from far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers were of grave concern in the 2020 and 2022 elections and, while such groups are still active, extremist researchers aren’t as worried about what they might do. “In 2021, we saw Proud Boys showing up in all kinds of school board meetings and things like this, and just basically threatening people,” Beirich said. “I think that’s a real possibility. I also think lone wolf violence — somebody who’s just not happy about the direction things are going, that might be a serious problem.” 

Jon Lewis, a research fellow at GWU’s Program on Extremism, shares that concern. “I think the biggest thing that has been the case since Jan. 6, consistently from the extremism space, is that the threat is the network,” he told Democracy Docket. “It’s not about these individual organizations or groups… it’s this coalitional kind of culture war narrative.”

The “network” Lewis is referring to is the conservative outrage machine, with Trump in the driver’s seat and the far-right media in the passenger seat amplifying whatever hateful rhetoric and call to action he’s spewing on any given day. Lewis points to some of the people arrested for acts of violence on Jan. 6 as prime examples of what such rhetoric can drive people to. It’s not so much the members of extremist groups that stick out to him, but the ordinary people  — like the yoga teacher from California, or the Texas real estate agent — who were incited by Trump’s words to violently storm the U.S. Capitol.

“They were the ones who, when push comes to shove, they were told day after day, month after month, year after year, that those people over there in [the Capitol] are not your people. That they are less than you because they hate America, they hate what you stand for. They hate this country. They’re trying to take what is yours and you have to fight,” Lewis explained. “ It’s an emotional message and it taps into these root primal fears. This is the right-wing media ecosystem that has been pumping out day after day, week after week.”

As the GOP officially declares Trump as their presumptive nominee for the November election, there’s no indication that the former president is holding back on making incendiary comments to rile up his base. He keeps promoting conspiracy theories and lies about the 2020 election, parroting language used by Adolf Hitler to describe the immigration crisis and has claimed that President Joe Biden is conspiring to “overthrow” the country. The cumulative effect of Trump’s rhetoric — especially as the election draws closer — is what worries Lewis. 

All it takes is the eye of this right-wing rage machine to target some election worker in Georgia, some state election official in a purple state like Pennsylvania or Michigan, where we’ve seen these conspiracies pop up time and time again.

Many states have taken necessary steps to protect election workers.

As was the case in 2020 and 2022, the states on high alert for potential violence this election season are swing states. States like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where the race between Biden and Trump is expected to be razor thin and could ultimately decide the outcome of the election. With all eyes on just a handful of states, there’s concern that state and local officials might not be prepared for whatever potential threats may develop. 

But a lot of states have taken necessary steps in the past few years to secure their elections, and effectively respond to threats of violence. Plus, as McCord noted, there’s been a lot of turnover of election workers and volunteers between this election and previous ones. 

“Those coming in, I think are coming in clear eyed and steely, with resolve about what they need to do, and that they may, depending on where they’re at in the country, have to be prepared for intimidation and threats and things like that,” she told Democracy Docket. “But I think in a lot of places, there’s just a lot more support now than in previous elections.”

Through their organizations, both Hiller and McCord train state and local officials for best practices to assess potential election threats and how to address them. “Some of it is about just helping them to better understand the specific types of concerns and trends around political violence or threats,” Hiller said of the work she does in these training sessions. “And a lot of it is about helping to support them continue to do the work that they’re doing, while understanding the nature of political violence, threats and how to get ahead of it.”

Most importantly, though, is that a high number of states have passed legislation since the midterm elections aimed specifically at protecting election workings and the voting process. That includes legislation in 12 states and Washington, D.C. to ban possessing firearms near polling places, as well as other laws to either make it illegal or increase the penalties for harassing poll workers, including doxxing, making threats of violence and interfering with their duties. Since 2022, 15 states have passed laws to protect public officials and election workers and at least 26 states have introduced new legislation, according to Public Citizen.

“My sense is, for example, here in Georgia that the election infrastructure is pretty strong,” says Beirich. “And given the sort of hell that Trump put them through in 2020, they realize what the possibilities are.”