Senate Judiciary Committee airs threats against elections workers

Michael Macagnone
Cq-Roll Call

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department and election officials told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that election workers face increased threats ahead of the midterm elections, as Congress considers additional election protections.

Thousands of threats have targeted election workers, the DOJ and election officials told the committee. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson testified she and her colleagues feared for their safety after threats prompted by former President Donald Trump’s denial of his 2020 election loss.

“There is an omnipresent feeling of anxiety and dread that permeates our daily lives, and those of our families,” Benson said. “Not long ago my son, standing in our driveway, picked up a stick, turned to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, Mom. If the bad guys come again, I’ll get them with this.’ He’s 6 years old.”

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Wednesday’s hearing came at the same time the Senate Rules Committee considered a bill to overhaul the Electoral Count Act, intended to prevent a repeat of the pressure campaign on then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn former Trump’s loss in the 2020 election.

Benson and other Democratic witnesses told the Judiciary Committee that bill is not enough. “Imposing stronger penalties on those who would threaten or harm anyone involved in election administration is an important step,” Benson said.

Divisions: The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol also has highlighted threats against election workers, including Trump’s targeting of Georgia election workers like Ruby Freeman. However, efforts to address those threats have stalled in a closely divided Congress.

A Congressional Research Service report issued Monday noted more than a dozen bills introduced this Congress have dealt with threats to election workers or attempts to interfere with elections. Some of those, such as the much broader John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, met stiff resistance from Senate Republicans.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., brought up one bill, dubbed the Enhance Election Security and Protection Act, which would provide an extra year of punishment for anyone found guilty of interfering with federal election officials. The bill would also create more rules for mail-in ballot security, reauthorize the national Election Assistance Commission and require local election officials to secure election machines and materials.

“This is just unacceptable behavior, and for the election workers I think that we have to do more,” Tillis said of the threats against election workers.

From left, Jocelyn Benson, Michigan secretary of state, D. Michael Hurst, Jr., former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico secretary of state, and Rafael Mangual, a fellow with the Manhattan Institute, testify as the Senate Judiciary Committee hears from officials about the rise in threats toward elected leaders and election workers, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Task force: Last year, the Justice Department created an Election Threats Task Force meant to handle the deluge. Kenneth Polite Jr., an assistant attorney general, told the committee it has received more than 1,000 criminal referrals and initiated five prosecutions for threats against election workers.

“The courageous and dedicated men and women who are responsible for administering the most fundamental aspect of our democracy,” Polite said. “Our elections should not face threats from merely doing their jobs.”

Democrats, including committee Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., tied those threats to President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that election fraud caused his 2020 election loss and called the threats a growing danger for democracy.

“Our democracy cannot survive if we allow harassment and intimidation of election officials to become the new norm,” Durbin said.

Meanwhile, some Republicans argued the Biden administration had played politics by establishing a task force to handle threats against election workers while ignoring a rise in violent crime. Committee ranking member, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, likened the DOJ’s task force to an earlier guidance on threats against school board members.

“This administration doesn’t want to talk about the failed policies of Democratic cities where crime is spiking up. The law enforcement agencies like the Department of Justice should not be participating in those sorts of politics,” Grassley said.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and other Republicans questioned the Justice Department’s emphasis on threats that have not produced many prosecutions when churches and anti-abortion facilities have been victims of vandalism following this year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning the constitutional right to an abortion.

“It seems as if there’s one set that you are prioritizing and there is another set that you’re saying is not of equal importance,” Blackburn said. “If you’ve got a task force for one but not another. Then the perception is that these crimes, against the churches and the crisis pregnancy centers, these are not important to you.”