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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Tonya Wichman has overseen elections in a rural Ohio county for eight years and hasn’t experienced any significant problems with voting or counting the ballots. But that doesn’t mean no big worries at all.
What does concern her is the frequent harassment, intimidation and even physical threats she and her staff have been receiving since the 2020 election. It got so bad ahead of the 2022 midterms that her staff got police protection when leaving or coming to the office.
That’s why she was interested in the indictment this week of former President Donald Trump and 18 others charged in an alleged conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. Among many charges, the indictment names several people accused of a harassment campaign that led to death threats against two Atlanta election workers.
It marks the highest-profile effort yet to hold people accountable for targeting state or local election officials, many of whom have left their jobs after facing political pressure or threats from those who falsely believe the 2020 presidential election was rigged.
“It’s nice to know that people are listening,” said Wichman, a Republican who is the election director in Defiance County, where Trump won over 67% of the vote in 2020.
“We understand the First Amendment and the right to free speech, but harassing poll workers and harassing election officials, intimidating their families, it’s just wearing down on people and causing good people to leave their jobs,” she said. “It’s been unsettling across the country.”
Indictment against Trump in Georgia gives hope to election workers
Election worker intimidation is one key element of the conspiracy alleged in the Georgia case. Tuesday’s indictment alleges that several of the defendants falsely accused Fulton County election worker Ruby Freeman of committing election crimes and says some defendants traveled from out of state to harass and intimidate her.
The indictment charges Trump with making false statements and writings in claims he made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and other state election officials on Jan. 2, 2021 — including that up to 300,000 ballots “were dropped mysteriously into the rolls,” that more than 4,500 people voted who weren’t on registration lists and that Freeman was a “professional vote scammer.”
Rudy Giuliani, a close Trump adviser at the time who also faces charges in the Georgia case, is accused of making several false claims about the vote-counting process at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Prosecutors say he falsely claimed that county election workers stationed there had kicked out observers and then “went about their dirty, crooked business,” illegally counting as many as 24,000 ballots. He also said three election workers — Freeman, her daughter Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and an unidentified man — were passing around USB ports “as if they’re vials of heroin or cocaine” to infiltrate Dominion voting machines.
Trump on the defensive
Three other defendants in the Georgia case — Harrison William Prescott Floyd, Trevian C. Kutti and Stephen Cliffgard Lee — were charged with solicitation of false statements and writings and with influencing witnesses related to the harassment of Freeman, who was falsely accused by Trump and others of committing fraud.
It was not immediately clear who was representing any of the three.
Edward B. Foley, director of election law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said the Georgia charges on top of the federal election case against Trump and a defamation lawsuit against Fox News are beginning to send a message.
“There was a sense that there was a free-for-all, that folks could attack the election with impunity and could attack particular individuals with impunity,” he said. “You’ve got to believe that all of these indictments — however they end up in trial, and with convictions or not — have changed the legal landscape and are going to cause people to think twice about this kind of behavior.”
Threats against poll workers leading to criminal cases
Several other cases involving threats against election workers have drawn attention in recent weeks. Earlier this month, a Texas man who threatened election officials in Arizona and called for a mass shooting of poll workers was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in federal prison.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an indictment against a 37-year-old Indiana man accused of threatening a Michigan election official. The target of that call was Tina Barton, a Republican who is the elections clerk in the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills.
She said she was relieved when charges were finally filed in her case — three years after she received a voice mail with an expletive-laced message threatening to kill her and accusing her of fraud in the 2020 election: “Guess what, you’re gonna pay for it. You will pay for it,” the caller said, according to court documents.
In the years since then, Barton said she feared for her own safety and that of her family.
“The political atmosphere is so charged on both sides right now that it’s tough to have any conversation around anything along those lines. Including something that is an actual threat to someone’s life,” she said. “It becomes isolating.”
Thousands of threats against poll workers
The call that led to the indictment was just one of many she received in the weeks after the 2020 presidential election, but the others were not considered “true threats” under the high bar set by federal law. Only an intent to cause immediate harm is considered a crime — something that’s meant to protect free speech but can be little comfort to those targeted for harassment.
A Justice Department Election Threats Task Force formed in June 2021 has reviewed more than 2,000 harassing or threatening communications to election workers. Federal prosecutors have filed federal criminal charges in more than a dozen of those cases, including the case involving the Texas man.
In Georgia, the indictment alleges that Floyd recruited Kutti, who flew to Atlanta from Chicago on Jan. 4, 2021, to make contact with Freeman. Lee, the indictment says, communicated with Floyd by phone. The indictment says Kutti, Floyd and Lee all broke the law by “knowingly and unlawfully engaging in misleading conduct toward Ruby Freeman … by stating that she needed protection and by purporting to offer her help, with intent to influence her testimony in an official proceeding in Fulton County, Georgia.”
Freeman and her daughter testified to Congress last year that Trump and his allies latched onto surveillance footage from November 2020 to accuse both women of committing voter fraud — allegations that were quickly debunked, yet spread widely across conservative media. Both women faced death threats for several months after the election.
Addressing threats against election workers through legislation
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold has tried to address the threats through legislation.
She worked with state lawmakers last year on a bill that establishes election workers as a protected class against doxing — the release online of someone’s personal information. It makes the practice a misdemeanor and allows election workers to remove their personal information from online records. It also makes threatening an election official a misdemeanor under state law.
Colorado is one of 12 states to pass laws protecting election workers, either by shielding their personal information, increasing penalties for harassment or both, according to data gathered by the nonprofit Voting Rights Lab.
“There are many states that do not take threats to election officials, who are largely women, seriously enough,” Griswold said, noting that she continues to face a steady stream of threats even during lulls in election activity. “Hands down, this has been the hardest part of my job.”