WASHINGTON — Democrats on the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday examined how to address violent threats against poll officials, while Republicans questioned why the Justice Department is not doing more to investigate threats against crisis pregnancy centers and Supreme Court justices.
During a hearing on the protection of election officials, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. discussed how the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force prosecutes people who have threatened election officials. To date, the task force has investigated more than 1,000 complaints and prosecuted five individuals.
The hearing comes as states prepare for November’s midterm elections, which many poll officials fear could lead to a further spike in threats and harassment. A recent national survey found that 1 in 5 election officials say they are fairly or very unlikely to stay in their jobs until 2024 due to increasing threats and political pressure.
The Senate panel called current and former election officials and members of law enforcement to discuss the threats and possible solutions.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson described her first-hand experience, including an incident where people came to her home yelling threats and profanity into megaphones while she euthanized her infant son.
She described a “pervasive sense of anxiety and fear permeating our homes,” and asked senators to pass additional protections for her and her colleagues.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Tolouse Oliver said she was forced to leave her home under state police protection for weeks during the 2020 election cycle when she was “doxxed,” meaning her personal information was released publicly. Her office has also faced threats, some serious enough to relate to law enforcement, and social media trolling that parrots are spreading misinformation online.
“For the election officials and volunteer poll workers on whom our elections depend, I fear that threats and harassment will cause them so much stress and insecurity that they will simply quit their jobs,” she said.
Former Washington Secretary of State and current senior election security adviser to the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Kim Wyman broke down in tears during her opening address and said she didn’t want to cry in front of the committee, but rather the opening video, which contained violent threats against her colleagues and others left her emotionally.
Republicans have repeatedly questioned why the Justice Department doesn’t investigate threats unrelated to election officials.
Showing photos of vandalized crisis pregnancy centers in several states, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas claimed that the Justice Department’s policy “coincidentally coincided with the vandals” so there was no prioritization of the incidents.
“I am very concerned that this Justice Department is politicizing the enforcement of justice,” Cruz said.
Polite responded that politics played no part in the department’s investigations and prosecutions, and that the department took any incident of violence seriously.
Cruz also questioned why the Justice Department hadn’t done more to protect Supreme Court justices from protesters in their homes, which he claimed were encouraged by Democratic rhetoric.
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the committee, began the hearing by discussing the pervasive threat of violent crime across the country without mentioning the threats against election officials.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee also spoke about attacks on churches, Supreme Court justices and pregnancy crisis centers, ignoring the issue of the hearing.
Two prosecution witnesses, like Republicans, focused on common violent crimes.
Michael Hurst, Jr., a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, questioned whether the DOJ should devote its “limited time” to threatening poll officials amid a spike in violent crime across the country.
He said the task force has prosecuted just five cases out of over 1,000 referrals — a number that pales in comparison to the number of people killed by violent crime in the United States.
Democratic senators eventually accused Republicans of trying to minimize or dismiss the legitimate threats facing people in the voting community.
“First, I would like to state how weak and unconvincing I find the arguments being offered here today to try to muddy the waters or suggest that protecting our electoral processes, institutions and workers does so for the federal government and the Justice Department is a vital mission and essential to the functioning of our democracy that deserves our department’s attention at the highest level,” said Senator John Ossoff of Georgia.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the committee chair, also urged his colleagues to further change the subject.
“There might be people watching this hearing and thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?'” Durbin said. “Why isn’t a Republican witness or senator speaking on the issue that was the subject of this hearing?”
He continued and said, “The answer is very clear and simple and obvious. It’s saying the big lie is a lie,” he said, something Republicans cannot do politically.
“Violent crimes are the subject of 10 hearings and may be the subject of 10 more,” he added. “That’s not why we’re here today.”
dissemination of misinformation
While most of the solutions proposed at the hearing focused on the role of federal law enforcement, witnesses urged senators to find other ways to protect poll workers from threats.
Toulouse Oliver said it was important to stop the spread of misinformation and lies, as her office is trying to do.
Matt Crane, the executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association and a self-proclaimed conservative Republican, asked senators to make it easier for local election officials to learn about and receive federal funds to protect themselves and their offices from security threats.
Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association for State Election Directors, discussed how difficult it has been for election officials to apply for and receive grants under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, or JAG program, the largest source of federal justice funding, both state and local jurisdictions.
Cohen said the promised funding was not actually available to election officials for physical security and to fund a law enforcement presence in their offices.
Calling for more support for security, Cohen noted that unlike law enforcement officers, election officials did not step into the job because they knew it would pose threats to their lives.
“Election officials didn’t make that choice,” she said. “Until recently this was not an area where you thought it could cost you your life and now that it is we need a full government response to keep our community safe.”