WASHINGTON — Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee explored Wednesday how to address violent threats against election officials, while Republicans questioned why the Justice Department isn’t doing more to investigate threats against crisis pregnancy centers and Supreme Court justices.
During a hearing on protecting election officials, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. explained how the Justice Department‘s Election Threats Task Force prosecutes people who have threatened election officials. To date, the working group has investigated over 1,000 complaints and sued five people.
The hearing comes as states prepare for November’s midterm elections, which many election officials fear will spark a new wave of threats and harassment. A recent national survey found that one in five election officials say they are unlikely or very unlikely to keep their job until 2024 due to increased threats and political pressure.
The Senate panel called on current and former election officials and members of law enforcement to discuss the threats and potential solutions.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson detailed her first-hand experience, including an incident in which people came down to her home and shouted threats and obscenities into megaphones as she put her youngster to sleep son.
She described a “pervasive sense of anxiety and dread that pervades our house” and pleaded with senators to enact additional protections for her and her colleagues.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Tolouse Oliver says she had to leave her home for weeks under state police protection during the 2020 election cycle when she was ‘doxxed’ , which means that his personal information has been published publicly. His office has also been the target of threats, some serious enough to point to law enforcement, and social media trolling that spreads parrot misinformation online.
“For the election officials and volunteer poll workers on whom our elections depend, I fear threats and harassment will cause them so much stress and uncertainty that they will simply abandon their jobs,” she said.
Former Washington Secretary of State and current Senior Election Security Advisor for the US Agency for Cyber and Infrastructure Security Kim Wyman cried during her opening remarks, saying she doesn’t didn’t want to cry in front of the committee, but the opening video detailing the violent threats against her colleagues and others left her emotional.
Republicans have repeatedly asked why the Justice Department isn’t investigating threats that have nothing to do with election officials.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has posted photos of vandalized crisis pregnancy centers in several states, saying Justice Department policy “happens to go along with the vandals” so there is no there was no prioritization of incidents.
“I’m very concerned that this Department of Justice is politicizing the enforcement of justice,” Cruz said.
Polit responded that politics plays no role in the department’s investigations and prosecutions and that the department takes any incidents of violence seriously.
Cruz also questioned why the Justice Department hadn’t done more to protect Supreme Court justices from protesters in their homes, who he said were encouraged by Democratic rhetoric.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, began the hearing by discussing the pervasive threat of violent crime across the country, not mentioning threats against election officials.
Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee also spoke about the attacks on churches, Supreme Court justices and pregnancy centers in crisis, ignoring the topic of the hearing.
Two law enforcement witnesses, like the Republicans, focused on violent crime in general.
Michael Hurst, Jr., former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, questioned whether the DOJ should devote its “limited time” to threats against election officials when there is an increase in violent crime across the country.
He said the task force has only prosecuted five cases out of more than 1,000 removals — a number that pales in comparison to those killed by violent crimes in the United States.
Democratic senators ultimately called out Republicans for trying to downplay or dismiss legitimate threats facing members of the electoral community.
“I want to begin by pointing out how weak and unconvincing I find the arguments presented here today to attempt to cover our tracks or to suggest that for the federal government and the Department of Justice, the protection of our electoral processes, our institutions and our workers is not a mission vital and essential to the functioning of our democracy, absolutely worthy of our department’s high-level attention,” said Senator John Ossoff of Georgia.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, chairman of the committee, also called on his colleagues to keep changing the subject.
“There might be people looking at this hearing and thinking, ‘What’s going on here? ‘” Durbin said. “Why will no Republican witnesses or senators speak to the issue that was the subject of this hearing?”
He went on to say “the answer is very clear and simple and obvious. It means saying the big lie is a lie,” which Republicans cannot do politically, he said.
“Violent crime is the subject of 10 hearings, and it could be the subject of 10 more,” he added. “That’s not why we’re here today.”
Spreading false information
While most of the solutions offered at the hearing focused on the role of federal law enforcement, witnesses urged senators to protect election workers from threats in other ways.
Toulouse Oliver said it was essential to stop the spread of misinformation and lies, as his office is trying to do.
Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association and a self-proclaimed conservative Republican, asked senators to help local election officials educate themselves and receive federal funds to help them protect themselves and their offices from threats to Security. .
Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association for State Election Directors, explained how difficult it was for election officials to apply for and receive grants through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, or JAG, the most major source of federal justice funding for state and local jurisdictions.
Cohen said the promised funding was not actually available to election officials for physical security and to help pay for a law enforcement presence in their offices.
Asking for more security support, Cohen noted that unlike law enforcement professionals, election officials did not go into the work knowing it would include death threats.
“Election officials didn’t make that choice,” she said. “Until recently, this was not an area where you thought it could cost your life, and now that it is, we need a whole-of-government response to keep our community safe. “