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Hundreds of election workers and administrators who run the nation’s elections face “alarming” levels of abuse, largely fuelled by baseless voter fraud conspiracy theories and Donald Trump’s campaign to reject the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
One in six election workers have been threatened because of their job, according to a 2022 survey from the Brennan Center for Justice, revealing the “damaging” and “sustained” attacks against people who help run the nation’s elections and put the business of “election administration and our democratic system in serious danger.”
More than half of poll respondents reported harassment on social media, on the phone, or while on the job.
In their testimony to the House select committee investigating the attack on the US Capitol, Georgia election workers Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman revealed the depth of abuse they endured, forcing them from their jobs and making them feel unsafe after the former president and Rudy Giuliani pushed debunked conspiracy theories against them.
Several Republican officials also detailed the harassment and threats they faced after rebuffing Mr Trump’s efforts to overturn election results in their states.
The former president referenced the two Georgia election workers by name 18 times on a call with Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who was pressured to “find” enough votes to claim victory for Mr Trump in the state.
Mr Trump called Ms Freeman “a professional vote scammer and hustler”.
During a state legislative hearing in December 2020, Mr Giuliani accused the two Black women of “surreptitiously passing around” a USB drive as if it was “heroin or cocaine” while they counted election results in Fulton County and demanded that their homes and workplaces be searched by authorities.
The USB drive was a ginger mint, Ms Moss said.
Ms Moss and her mother later filed a defamation suit against Mr Giuliani as well as right-wing outlet One American News Network, which settled with the women in April.
Those baseless claims were also used as alleged evidence in a spurious, partisan-driven “audit” of election results in Arizona’s Maricopa County, and allegations against them continue to circulate on social media.
“I’ve lost my name. I’ve lost my reputation,” Ms Freeman told the committee in videotaped testimony released by the committee on 21 June.
“There is nowhere I feel safe,” she said. “Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States to target you? The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one. But he targeted me … a small business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen, who stepped up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of the pandemic.”
Appearing before the committee in person, Ms Moss revealed she received racist and hateful messages on Facebook, igniting a wave of abuse that “turned my life upside down,” she said.
“I don’t do nothing anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere,” she told the committee. “I don’t go to the grocery store at all. I haven’t been anywhere at all. I’ve gained about 60 pounds … I second guess everything that I do. It’s affected my life in a major way, in every way, all because of lies.”
Election disinformation and conspiracy theories fuelling political attacks against election administration have made election work unsustainable, according to the Brennan Center’s report.
Nearly 75 per cent of election workers who faced abuse were threatened on the phone, and more than half were threatened in person, the survey found. A quarter of respondents were threatened in the mail, and 27 per cent were targeted on social media.
Most respondents said they were concerned for the safety of their colleagues, while 65 per cent said they fear in-person abuse.
One in five workers said they might quit before 2024. Among those who said they plan to leave their jobs before 2024 elections, one-third cited political attacks against a process that they know is fair and honest as one of central reasons for leaving.
Ms Moss said none of her colleagues who worked alongside her during 2020 elections are still working in those roles.
Arizona Republican Rusty Bowers, who testified about his efforts to resist Mr Trump’s pressure campaign, said he confronted protesters in his yard while caring for his “gravely ill” daughter.
What he did not divulge to the committee is that his daughter Kacey Rae Bowers died shortly after in January 2021.
In his testimony to the committee, Mr Raffensperger detailed the threats against his family – including sexually explicit threats sent to his wife and a break in at his daughter-in-law’s home.
Georgia elections officials Gabriel Sterling, another Republican, told the committee that the “straw that broke the camel’s back” as the state was inundated with conspiracy theories and abuse was a threat against a contractor for a voting machines company that said “you committed treason” and “may God have mercy on your soul” attached to a “slowly twisting GIF of a noose”.
“I lost it. I just got irate,” Mr Sterling said. “That’s what prompted me to do what I did – I lost my temper, but it seemed necessary to do at the time.”
In December 2020, he urged then-President Trump and his allies pushing voter fraud conspiracy theories to condemn threats of violence and abuse, “or someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed,” he said at the time.
Last year, the US Department of Justice launched a task force to safeguard voting access and investigate “menacing and violent threats” against election workers.
To date, the task force has prosecuted at least three cases involving threats to election workers.
Last week, Travis Ford pleaded guilty to posting multiple messages on an election official’s Instagram page, including “Do you feel safe? You shouldn’t. Do you think Soros will/can protect you?”
“Your security detail is far too thin and incompetent to protect you,” he wrote in another message, according to the Justice Department. “This world is unpredictable these days … anything can happen to anyone.”
He is scheduled to be sentenced on 6 October and faces up to two years in prison.
“The Justice Department will not tolerate illegal threats of violence against public officials,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “Threats of violence against election officials are dangerous for people’s safety and dangerous for our democracy.”