Mar 26, 2024 - Politics & Policy

DOJ warns of "new era" in targeting election officials as 20 charged over threats

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice Building on March 21, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Attorney General Merrick Garland in Washington, D.C., last week. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Department of Justice officials said Monday they're investigating "dozens" of reports of threats against election workers and have charged some 20 people.

The big picture: A significant number of reports of officials targeted during the 2020 and 2022 elections work in the swing state of Arizona, which President Biden won four years ago — including its now-Gov. Katie Hobbs (D).

  • John Dixon Keller, who heads the DOJ's Election Threats Task Force, said at a Phoenix, Ariz., news conference Monday that the U.S. was in a "new era in which the election community is scapegoated, targeted, and attacked."

State of play: The DOJ officials made their announcement hours after Ohio man Joshua Russell was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for threatening to kill Hobbs when she was serving as Arizona's secretary of state in 2022.

  • 46-year-old Russell, of Bucyrus, who pleaded guilty to making a threatening interstate communication over voicemail messages, was among 13 of those the DOJ has charged to be convicted, per Keller.
  • A total of 10 have been sentenced and seven of these received prison sentences of more than 18 months, according to Keller.

Zoom out: Keller noted there had been "widespread" reports to the task force that Attorney General Merrick Garland formed in 2021 in response to a spike in threats against election officials.

  • Most of the reports received didn't result in criminal cases. "Because so much of the hostility does not cross the line into criminal threats, prosecution alone is not the answer," he said.
  • "The normalization of personal threats and attacks on government officials and their families is contributing to an election environment in which people are committing previously unthinkable crimes."

The bottom line: "Death threats are not debate," Keller said. "Death threats are not a protected constitutional right."

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