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Facing threats of violence, election officials are growing frustrated with DOJ task force

(WASHINGTON) — When the Department of Justice introduced a federal election security task force in the summer of 2021 to assist election officials with risk assessment and to investigate and prosecute threats against election workers, state and local officials hailed the move, hoping the crackdown would stem a deluge of departures from their ranks.

But more than a year later, as another election approaches and threats against election workers persist, some election administrators have grown frustrated with what they say are the DOJ’s seemingly paltry results — with one state official slamming the feds’ efforts to date as little more than “theater.”

“At the national level, the DOJ and the FBI aren’t doing the election communities any favors,” North Dakota State Election Director Brian Newby told ABC News. “They’re talking about threats to election workers — and then when we have calls, they say that nothing is really a threat.”

With just one week until the midterms, some election officials say their interactions with federal law enforcement officials have left them feeling discouraged by the high bar for prosecuting what appear to be clear-cut crimes. Others have reported minimal engagement from the task force, even as they continue to report harassment and threats.

In August, Justice Department officials said the task force had reviewed “over 1,000” reports of threats, though only 11% had met the threshold for federal criminal investigation.

To date, only eight cases have been charged — one of which resulted in a conviction and 18-month prison sentence.

“While many of the contacts were often hostile, harassing, and abusive towards election officials, they did not include a threat of unlawful violence,” the August press release from DOJ said.

Barb Byrum, the clerk for Ingham County, Michigan, said she has been disappointed with the Justice Department’s efforts — particularly in her key swing state, where violent threats culminated in a 2020 domestic terror plot to kidnap the governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer.

“I am aware of a federal task force, but to my knowledge they have done absolutely nothing to assist state and local elections officials,” Byrum said. “This is not to say that we would not welcome federal help, at least some of us — but to date they have had absolutely no presence in Michigan, to my knowledge.”

Newby, the North Dakota election official, suggested that the task force has actually had an adverse effect.

“If people aren’t confident, they don’t vote,” Newby said. “Having a task force highlighting violence — all you’ve done is cause disruption. It causes a lot of angst and they’re not producing anything of value. It’s almost just theater on their part — it’s not helping anyone.”

Other election officials continue to support the task force, which they applaud as a resource for risk assessment and planning.

“We very much appreciate having a federal law enforcement task force that’s dedicated to this issue and have found it extremely helpful not just when dealing with actual threats, but in having a resource to help us plan for scenarios that may occur,” Michigan Secretary of State spokesperson Angela Benander told ABC News.

Threats against election workers have been on the rise since the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump and his allies leveled unfounded claims of fraud against election workers across the country. On email and social media, supporters of the former president have leveled a flurry of threats against election officials from governors and secretaries of state to Election Day poll workers.

However a survey of election officials in March by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found that very few election officers have reported threats to law enforcement. Of those who did, 89% reported them to local officials.

Some election officials say the decision to report threats to law enforcement requires a balance between election security and free expression.

Cassondra Knudson, the spokesperson for Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office, told ABC News that while the DOJ task force has been “very responsive,” her office “has yet to report any threats that stand the First Amendment test.” She said the state has flagged the DOJ when they see “something close to the threat line,” but that overall it has been “pretty minimal.”

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said he found the DOJ’s low rate of investigation and prosecution “not surprising.”

“It may not be so much that these things are not worthy of investigation than that there’s no immediately evident federal crime,” Ashcroft told ABC News.

“Unless the person is threatening bodily harm or violence — in that case they’re committing a crime — but if somebody’s calling in saying, ‘You’re going to go to prison for all the crimes you’ve committed and you better watch out’ or, ‘Maybe you should kill yourself for all the bad things you’ve done subverting elections’ … well, frankly, as terrible as that is, it’s not a crime,” Ashcroft said.

“People have a First Amendment right to kind of call and yell at public officials,” he said. “To put it bluntly, it doesn’t surprise me to hear that a relatively low percentage of these threats are investigated, because they’re probably a lot of threatening things that happen that don’t rise to the level of criminality.”

While many victims of threats never see their antagonist, others have been confronted in person. Michella Huff, an elections executive in Surry County, North Carolina, described a group of out-of-state politicians who appeared at her office on March 28, threatening to have her fired if she didn’t grant them access to her county’s voting machines, which is against state and local election law.

Huff refused, and she recently installed a panic button at the county election offices as a result of the harassment she said she and her staff have faced.

“We had not seen it here before,” Huff told ABC News, describing her county as firmly Republican. “Naively, I thought we would be exempt, but it hit here hard on March 28, especially though the primary.”

“I don’t know what their end goal is,” she said. “It’s been very hard to figure out.”

Huff’s complaints were conveyed to the Justice Department, but it was not clear whether an investigation was conducted. Huff said she never saw or heard from any DOJ, FBI or DHS official — a refrain echoed by election officials elsewhere.

“I’m not aware of how they are offering direct support to the counties,” one Boulder County, Colorado, official told ABC News. Another official in Marion County, Florida, said, “I haven’t really heard anything from the task force.”

A Justice Department official told ABC News that over the past year, the task force has held approximately 40 meetings, presentations and trainings with the election community, state and local prosecutors and law enforcement, vendors providing election support services, and major social media companies.

“The Task Force has regularly engaged with these organizations’ memberships to hear directly from election officials and workers regarding the types of threatening communications that they receive, the challenges such communications pose to election administration, and their greatest concerns and needs with respect to combating physical threats,” the official said.

Liz Howard, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, recommended that the Justice Department consider hiring an adviser that has “existing relationships in the election official community, so they can expand their network and increase awareness of the task force.”

Some states have already rolled out their own platforms for reporting threats to election workers. Georgia’s secretary of state, for example, recently launched a text message alert notification tool for election workers to use ahead of the midterms.

Howard told ABC News that the multiple threat-related arrests made by the DOJ are a “step in the right direction” — but that “more needs to be done.”

“We believe that the Elections Threat Task Force needs to be expanded to include state and local law enforcement,” Howard said. “Local law enforcement needs to be at the table and they’re going to be a critical player in addressing these threats and preventing them going forward.”

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