For nearly a year, election administrators across the country weathered the pandemic while facing attacks and threats — leading many officials to resign or retire. In Georgia, little was done to prevent it from happening again.
by Sonam Vashi, ProPublica
Wednesday, March 3, 2021
On Nov. 30, 2020, as Georgia slogged through the second recount of its presidential election results, a man in Ohio perusing Twitter came across what he later described as a “call for action” to protect polling locations across the country. His response was to drive more than 500 miles to Gwinnett County in the Atlanta suburbs. He began surveilling the Gwinnett County elections office — and livestreaming his vigil on Twitter.
At around 11 a.m. on Dec. 1, the Ohio man zeroed in on two workers — both Gwinnett County IT employees — who he decided, absent any evidence, were illegally removing “Chinese servers” used for voting tabulation. He “felt he needed to be a patriot and take action,” according to a Gwinnett County police report of the incident. From his black pickup truck, he recorded video of the two men putting equipment in their car. When they drove off, he followed them.
The Ohio man quickly gained thousands of viewers and retweets for his livestream, partially by repeatedly tagging the Twitter account @CodeMonkeyZ, a now-suspended major disseminator of QAnon conspiracy theories. A viewer in Oklahoma called the police department in Gwinnett’s county seat, Lawrenceville, complaining that the two county employees were mishandling voting equipment and that police should stop them. (The Lawrenceville Police Department also got complaints from Kansas and Utah about alleged ballot cheating that callers claimed to have seen on livestreams.)
The suspicious cargo the workers loaded into their car actually had nothing to do with elections: They’d stopped by the voter registration office to pick up new desk phones to distribute across the county. Gwinnett County elections supervisor Kristi Royston had warned her employees to be mindful of their surroundings, particularly as groups of people concerned about election fraud had been gathering at the county elections office that day, and encouraged staffers to “buddy up” before they went out.
The black pickup followed the Gwinnett County employees’ car for nearly 10 miles: first, to a gas station, where no one got out of their vehicles — the two employees later told police they were trying to lose their tail — then to a gated county water treatment facility. One of the employees called 911, waiting in the car to keep the situation from escalating.
After police arrived, one of the IT workers said he had no interest in pressing charges and “just wanted [the Ohio man] to leave him alone,” according to the police report. Police let the Ohio man off with a warning. He did not respond to requests for comment; ProPublica is not naming him because he hasn’t been charged with a crime.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation received an increase in “threat information and tips” — including death threats against elected officials and election workers — in the wake of November’s presidential election and throughout the Senate runoff campaigns that followed, according to bureau public information officer Nelly Miles. Despite this, there have been next to no arrests and little follow-through by lawmakers.
ProPublica could identify only one case of a Georgia elections-related threat since November that led to an arrest: an Albany, Georgia, man who according to police yelled a racial slur at and threatened a campaign worker who had left a flyer at his house. No arrests were made in any of a dozen or more high-profile cases of politically fueled threats against Georgia’s governor and secretary of state, all of its state legislators, Fulton County’s district attorney, and election officials and workers in several counties.
For nearly a year, election administrators across the country weathered the pandemic while facing an unprecedented number of attacks and threats — leading many officials to resign or retire. Since November, the situation has been especially tense in Georgia, after a combustible chain of events: a Democratic presidential win in the state for the first time since 1992, the Trump campaign’s many challenges to the state’s election results and recounts, newly elected U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s support of baseless conspiracy theories and comments promoting violence against Democratic officials, two runoff races that would determine which party took control of the U.S. Senate, and a leaked phone call in which Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to reverse his loss, to name a few.
“Georgia certainly was one of the top places that we were looking at for threats to election officials,” said Nealin Parker, co-director of the Bridging Divides Initiative, a project based at Princeton University. The initiative has teamed with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit conflict-research organization, to create the U.S. Crisis Monitor, which analyzes political violence and demonstrations in the U.S.
According to the U.S. Crisis Monitor, Georgia saw paramilitary activity — by such militant far-right groups as the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, or the Proud Boys — at more than twice the rate seen at demonstrations taking place nationwide between the November election and President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration. At least eight Georgians have been arrested for their alleged roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Gwinnett County Solicitor-General Brian Whiteside has vowed to prosecute anyone who threatens or assaults an election worker, which is a felony under state law. Even though police didn’t file charges in the IT incident involving the Ohio man, Whiteside is investigating it; he said that, if a law has been broken, “our job is to be a preventive agency and enforce the law.” Otherwise, he said, “what type of message do you send to people when they do this? That it’s going to be lawless?”
Whiteside also said there needs to be a special division of state government tasked with investigating election-related crimes. “I have a deep fear that somebody is going to get hurt out here,” he said. “Because they’re not making enough preventive arrests when these incidents happen.”
Around the same time as the Ohio man followed the Gwinnett County IT employees, social media users circulated videos of a voting-systems tech who was doing some work at a Gwinnett elections office. The videos show the tech walking away from one election workstation with a USB drive, then inserting the drive into a nearby laptop. Social media users accused him of stealing or changing voting data. (The part of the video with the USB drive was a “smoking gun,” wrote one.) The tech actually was transferring data to the laptop in order to use Microsoft Excel, which wasn’t installed on the first computer, according to a Reuters fact check.
The tech’s home address was shared across social media; one Twitter user posted a warning that he was “committing treason” and included a picture of a noose. This prompted Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling to ask of then-President Trump in a widely covered press conference: “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed.”
In November, a video that drew 5 million views on Twitter falsely accused a temporary elections worker in Georgia’s Fulton County of rigging votes. The worker told WABE that he changed his appearance and went into hiding for three days.
In the time between the November election and the January runoffs, Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters about death threats on social media against him and his family; Raffensperger reported a text message that said, “You better not botch this recount. Your life depends on it,” sexualized threats against his wife, and people trespassing on their home property; an aggressor followed a Georgia election worker home and called him a racial slur; and Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey received an email with his address, a photo of his home, and the message: “Your days are numbered. The FBI can’t save you. … Every time you leave your house in the morning, make sure to say goodbye to your family, as you may not see them again.”
A couple of days before the January runoff election, employees in 10 Georgia counties — all of which lean Republican — received threatening emails about explosives at polling places. Sheriff’s deputies and other police in those counties increased their presence at polling places during the election, and Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix said the GBI later traced the email to an overseas server. As with the other incidents, no arrests were made.
Unlike in Georgia, recent high-profile, politically motivated threats in other states have resulted in charges and arrests. In November, authorities in Norfolk, Virginia, arrested a man for threatening to bomb a polling place. The same month, a New York man was arrested and charged with making threatening interstate communications after allegedly using social media to issue an apparent threat against U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and to write that he wanted to “blow up” an FBI building. After Republicans on the elections board of Wayne County, Michigan, initially refused to certify November election results in favor of Biden, the U.S. Attorney’s office charged a New Hampshire woman with sending threatening messages — allegedly including photos of a bloodied, naked body — to a Republican member of that board.
The Michigan Attorney General’s office also filed charges this year against multiple people for making threats to public officials — including a Georgia man who in September allegedly left a threatening voicemail for a Michigan judge who had ruled in favor of Biden in a case related to mail-in ballots.
“It is unacceptable and illegal to intimidate or threaten public officials,” Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel said in a statement. “To those who think they can do so by hiding behind a keyboard or phone, we will find you and we will prosecute you, to the fullest extent of the law. No elected official should have to choose between doing their job and staying safe.”
Georgia state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Democrat who represents parts of Atlanta’s northeast suburbs, said he and all state legislators received multiple emailed threats after the November election. Holcomb said he’d be interested in exploring tougher penalties for crimes committed against election workers. But first, he said, lawmakers need to get a sense of the pervasiveness of the problem.
“What we need to really think through is whether or not 2020 and ’21 were aberrations, with the dramatic increase of threats of violence against election workers,” he said. “Or is that the new norm? And if it’s the new norm, then we really need to be prepared to address it.”
And yet, even as misinformation gave rise to a mounting number of threats against election workers and polling places, there’s no centralized way to track every threat in Georgia.
The GBI oversees a multi-agency “fusion center” called the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which logs threats and tips and shares information with the FBI and other agencies. The GBI’s Miles described GISAC as one part of the state’s threat-monitoring system. But the GBI does not keep a statewide tally of politically motivated threats, which could fall under a variety of statutes, including intimidation of election workers, trespassing or terroristic threats.
The absence of a centralized system can make it difficult to detect patterns or spikes. That’s not uncommon: Law enforcement officials in Arizona, Vermont and Michigan told ProPublica that election-related threats in their jurisdictions are not comprehensively tracked at the state level.
“It’s hard to think of anything more urgent when we’re talking about election security than protecting election officials and election workers,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Project at the Brennan Center for Justice. “If we can’t accomplish that, then our elections are in real danger. And right now, as far as I can tell, it’s being mostly ignored.”
As for the types of changes that state or federal lawmakers can make to safeguard elections workers and officials, Norden pointed to a bill introduced last year by U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker that proposed stronger protections for federal judges following the murder of a New Jersey federal judge’s son. Norden said election workers would benefit from similar protections, including the ability to shield personal information from public view, training on how to maintain online privacy, and new threat-management capabilities for the U.S. Marshals Service.
Gwinnett County elections supervisor Royston, who’s worked in Georgia elections offices for more than two decades, said last year’s presidential election was unprecedented for her staff. Royston is thinking ahead to 2022, when Georgia is likely to see a heated gubernatorial race (potentially a rematch between Kemp and Stacey Abrams) and another U.S. Senate race (the newly elected Raphael Warnock, who’s filling the remaining two years of Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, is almost certain to face a Republican challenger).
Last year, the combination of the pandemic, new and contested elections equipment, looming threats, and scrutiny from all over the country forced Georgia election officials to be “reactive,” Royston said. “I think now that we’ve experienced that, we can say, ‘Okay, what do we need to plan for in case we have that again?’”
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