US election officials still plagued by threats for certifying Trump defeat
Late on the night of 24 April, the wife of Georgia’s top election official got a chilling text message: “You and your family will be killed very slowly.”
A week earlier, Tricia Raffensperger, wife of the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, had received another anonymous text: “We plan for the death of you and your family every day.”
That followed a 5 April text warning. A family member, the texter told her, was “going to have a very unfortunate incident”.
Those messages, which have not been previously reported, are examples of the continuing barrage of threats and intimidation against election officials and their families months after Donald Trump’s November election defeat.
While reports of threats against Georgia officials emerged in the heated weeks after the voting, Reuters interviews with more than a dozen election workers and top officials – and a review of disturbing texts, voicemails and emails that they and their families received – reveal the previously hidden breadth and severity of the menacing tactics.
Trump’s relentless false claims that the vote was “rigged” against him sparked a campaign to terrorize election officials nationwide, from senior officials such as Raffensperger to the lowest-level local election workers.
The intimidation has been particularly severe in Georgia, where Raffensperger and other Republican election officials refuted Trump’s stolen-election claims.
The ongoing harassment could have far-reaching implications for future elections by making the already difficult task of recruiting staff and poll workers much harder, election officials say.
The US attorney general, Merrick Garland, said the justice department will prosecute threats against election officials, amid other additional measures to protect democracy.
Tricia Raffensperger has now spoken out publicly about the threats of violence to her family, and shared menacing text messages.
Tricia, 65, and Brad, 66, began receiving death threats almost immediately after Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in Georgia, long a Republican bastion.
Tricia Raffensperger started taking precautions. She canceled weekly visits in her home with two young grandchildren, the children of her eldest son, Brenton, who died from a drug overdose in 2018.
“I couldn’t have them come to my house any more,” she said. “You don’t know if these people are actually going to act on this stuff.”
In late November, the family went into hiding for nearly a week after intruders broke into the home of the Raffenspergers’ widowed daughter-in-law, an incident the family believed was intended to intimidate them.
That evening, people who identified themselves to police as Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group that has supported Trump’s election lies, were found outside the Raffenspergers’ home, according to Tricia Raffensperger and two sources with direct knowledge of the family’s ordeal.
“Brad and I didn’t feel like we could protect ourselves,” she said, explaining the decision to flee their home.
Brad Raffensperger told Reuters in a statement: “Vitriol and threats are an unfortunate, but expected, part of public service. But my family should be left alone.”
Trump’s baseless voter-fraud accusations have had dark consequences for US election leaders and workers, especially in contested states such as Georgia, Arizona and Michigan.
Arizona’s secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, told Reuters she continues to receive death threats. Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who faced armed protesters outside her home in December, is also still getting threats, her spokesperson said, declining to elaborate.
Many others whose lives have been threatened were low- or mid-level workers. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric could reverberate into the 2022 midterm congressional elections and the 2024 presidential vote. Many election offices will lose critical employees with years or decades of experience, predicted David Becker, executive director of the non-partisan Center for Election Innovation and Research.
“This is deeply troubling,” he said.
Carlos Nelson, elections supervisor for Ware county in south-eastern Georgia, shares that fear.
“These are people who work for little or no money, 12 to 14 hours a day on election day,” Nelson said. “If we lose good poll workers, that’s when we’re going to lose democracy.”
In Georgia, Trump faces an investigation into alleged election interference, the only known criminal inquiry into his attempts to overturn the 2020 vote.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller did not respond to Reuters’ questions, including why Trump has not forcefully denounced the torrent of threats being made in his name.
One email, sent on 2 January to Georgia officials in nearly a dozen counties, threatened to bomb polling sites, saying: “No one at these places will be spared unless and until Trump is guaranteed to be POTUS again.”
It was forwarded to the FBI, which declined to comment.
In Georgia, threatening violence against a poll officer is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000. Making death threats is a separate crime carrying up to five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Criminal law specialists say the widespread threats could increase the legal jeopardy for Trump in the Georgia investigation.
Among other matters, investigators are examining a 2 January call in which Trump urged Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn his Georgia loss.
That statement suggests Willis may be examining whether Trump, or others acting with him, solicited or encouraged death threats against election officials, said Clark Cunningham, a Georgia State University law professor. Such intimidation could fit into a possible racketeering investigation into Trump if the threats were part of a coordinated effort to overturn the election, said Clint Rucker, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney and former Fulton county prosecutor.
Since launching her inquiry in February, Willis has added several high-profile attorneys to her team, including a leading racketeering expert, to assist on cases including the Trump investigation, Reuters reported on 6 March.
“I think there’s going to be a big-picture look at all of it,” said Rucker, a Democrat, who once prosecuted a high-profile racketeering case with Fanni Willis, district attorney for Fulton county, which includes Atlanta.
A Fulton county district attorney spokesman, Jeff DiSantis, did not respond to requests for comment on the office’s inquiries into election-related threats of violence.
In April, two investigators from Willis’s office, met with the county elections director, Richard Barron seeking information on “hundreds” of threats against Barron and his staff, Barron said. He said his staff was made up almost entirely of Black election workers. “The racial slurs were disturbing and sickening,” he said of the threats.
Barron’s election registration chief, Ralph Jones, 56, received abhorrent, racist messages, and strangers showed up at his house.
“It was unbelievable: your life being threatened just because you’re doing your job,” he said.
And Barron was bombarded with threats after Trump accused him of criminal election fraud at a rally in December. “I underestimated how hard he was going to push that narrative and just keep pushing it,” Barron said.
Between Christmas and early January, Barron received nearly 150 hateful, vicious calls, many accusing him of treason or saying he deserved to he hanged or killed by firing squad, according to Barron and a Reuters review of some of the phone messages.
Election officials in at least 11 Georgia counties received an email in January – during the Senate runoff that resulted in a historic win for the Democrats in both the state’s US Senate seats – threatening “death and destruction” unless Trump continued to be president, and the bombing of all election sites.
It added: “We’ll make the Boston bombings look like child’s play,” apparently referring to the 2013 extremist attack on the Boston Marathon.
During the Senate runoff, Vanessa Montgomery, 58, was a polling manager in the Georgia city of Taylorsville.
When polls closed that night, she set off to deliver ballots to an elections office in Bartow county, a predominantly white, Republican district in north-western Georgia. Montgomery, who is Black, was traveling with her daughter, also a poll worker hired temporarily for the election.
They were followed by an SUV, which nearly ran them off the road. They had to call 911 and be guided to safety. The scare triggered a panic attack in Montgomery, something she had not experienced since being an army officer in Bosnia, seeing people blown up by landmines.
Her manager, Joseph Kirk, Bartow county elections supervisor, said he worried the ugly reactions to Trump’s loss could result in shortages of good election workers nationwide in future.
Many other election officials told of incidents such as receiving violent, “ranting” calls, threatening people that could go to prison for “rigging” the election against Trump.
Brad Raffensperger’s deputy, Jordan Fuchs, said she had received death threats and obscene images after a Trump supporter posted her contact details online.
Hostile messages, including calls for public hangings of officials, began pouring in to the office after Trump called Raffensperger an “enemy of the people” last year and continued as he refused to overturn the election results.
“I don’t think any of us anticipated this level of nastiness,” said Fuchs, 31, who grew up in a conservative Christian family and has worked for years to help elect Republicans.
Vivian Ho contributed reporting