Threats to Election Officials Piled Up as President Trump Refused to Concede

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Aspiring poll watchers banged on the glass outside the room where absentee ballots were being counted at TCF Center on November 4, 2020, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Aspiring poll watchers banged on the glass outside the room where absentee ballots were being counted at TCF Center on November 4, 2020, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

November 17, 2020

The man’s voice shook with rage as he accused the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office of throwing the election to President-elect Joe Biden. He offered no evidence but included a string of insults, expletives and slurs.

“You guys cheated and lied. You guys f****** lied and cheated,” he said in the 27-second long voicemail reviewed by FRONTLINE. “You guys are f****** dead.”

The message, received within days of the election, was one of an “abnormal” number of threats to election officials and ballot counters across the country compared to typical presidential races, said Benjamin Hovland, the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, a bipartisan federal agency that assists state governments with election administration. These threats continued to accumulate as President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, two weeks after polls closed — despite Joe Biden being projected as the president-elect, based on unofficial tallies from states.

The exact number of incidents of poll-worker intimidation is unknown. But a FRONTLINE review, based on questions to a dozen election and law enforcement agencies in five swing states, as well as local media reports, found examples of threats or acute security risks to election workers in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia.

“What we’re seeing this year — more than we have historically — is we have, thus far, baseless accusations of fraud and an unwillingness to acknowledge the results as being what they are,” Hovland told FRONTLINE. “You’re seeing that spin out on social media, in particular. You’re seeing it be amplified and various pieces of mis- or disinformation being thrown in — various conspiracy theories about the election administration process.”

Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said his conversations with election administrators nationwide have made it clear the frequency and severity of threats is much worse than in previous election cycles.

“It’s on a different level,” Norden told FRONTLINE. “There’s no question in my mind that this is unprecedented in the personal attacks on election officials.”

That ramping-up matters, Norden said, because it could discourage people from wanting to take on vital election work in future cycles. “I think election workers did an extraordinary job this year,” he said, citing challenges related to COVID-19, unprecedented early voting and record-breaking turnout overall. “The amount of time they put in to make this work, and then to have this reaction, the lies and threats against them — it worries me, for what it’s going to mean to get good people to continue to participate to ensure our elections run.”

For Hovland, the increase in intimidation and harassment represents a danger to both election workers and the health of American democracy.

“I’ve heard from election officials that they’re concerned about the safety of their staff,” Hovland said. “The foundation of our country and our democracy is trusting in the vote. When you see people lose faith in that, when you see people lose trust in that, it’s concerning.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment on their role in investigating election threats. Police departments in Philadelphia, Detroit, Phoenix and Fulton County, Georgia, either did not respond to requests for comment or referred questions to local election departments.

“The FBI has no comment on whether we are conducting specific investigations,” the FBI wrote in a statement to FRONTLINE. “However, the FBI takes all threats of violence seriously and we work closely with our federal, state, and local partners to identify and stop any potential threats to public safety. We gather and analyze intelligence to determine whether individuals might be motivated to take violent action for any reason, including due to concerns about the election.”

PENNSYLVANIA

In Philadelphia, two Virginia men were arrested on firearms charges on November 5 after the FBI received a tip they were traveling to polling locations with AR-15 rifles to “straighten things out.” The men, who have pleaded not guilty, were found with weapons and ammunition in a Hummer bearing a windshield sticker for QAnon — an online conspiracy group that has promoted baseless claims of election fraud.

Previously, in late October, a caller to Philadelphia’s 311 call center had threatened violence against “corrupt Democrat politicians and election officials who support Black Lives Matter and who use voter fraud.”

“You know what happens?” a man said in the call, which was first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They learn firsthand, the hard way, why the Second Amendment exists.” 

Omar Sabir, a Philadelphia election commissioner, said he is aware of “numerous” other attempts to threaten or harass election officials in the city but declined to discuss those messages in detail. 

“This is ridiculous. I understand that people are passionate about elections, but this is just going too far,” Sabir told FRONTLINE. “And I’m asking all of America to take a deep breath. Let’s calm down and bring America back together again.”

Shortly before he spoke to FRONTLINE by phone, a group of motorcyclists rode around his office carrying a Confederate flag, Sabir said. 

The Pennsylvania Department of State did not respond to questions about the number of threats made to election workers but issued a statement to FRONTLINE condemning such actions. 

“Intimidation and threats of violence toward election officials or volunteers are un-American and all government officials should denounce these acts,” the statement read. “[Election workers] deserve our thanks and admiration. Any threats against election works are disgraceful and will be met with criminal investigations.”

NEVADA

FRONTLINE reviewed evidence of two threats in Nevada: a recording of the 27-second, expletive-laced voicemail from days after polls closed and a police report describing a November 6 call to the Secretary of State’s Election Division.

“You all are lucky there that I am an elderly man that is too old to fight and don’t own any guns, but I’ll tell you what, you’re about to get bum rushed by a bunch of young, 20-year-old boys. You’re worthless,” the November 6 caller said, according to the police report.

The Secretary of State’s Office reported both threats to the Capitol Police, which protects government buildings in Nevada. A spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Capitol Police, said she could not comment due to ongoing investigations.

At a news conference on November 9, Joe Gloria, the registrar of voters for Nevada’s Clark County, referenced security concerns while answering questions from reporters.

“I think you’re all aware that we’ve had quite a bit of activity here at the election department,” Gloria said. “There has been some things that we’re concerned about, but the coverage that we’re getting from law enforcement has been outstanding, and my staff feel safe here.”

Officials from the Clark County Elections Department, which has been the target of conservative protests, declined to comment specifically on threats or security incidents. The North Las Vegas Police Department, which oversees public safety where votes were counted in Clark County, said it had no record of threats to election workers.

MICHIGAN

In Detroit, chaos erupted outside the outside the TCF Center, the city’s vote-counting headquarters, the morning after Election Day. Republican poll challengers circled around election workers, chanting, “Stop the count,” the Detroit Free Press reported. Other aspiring poll watchers, who were refused entry as the hall filled beyond the legally allowed number of “election challengers,” as they’re known in Michigan, began to bang on windows, accusing the city of covering up fraud.

On November 11, The Detroit News reported that a public Zoom meeting of Wayne County election canvassers had been interrupted by a person who threatened rape and violence against the board members’ mothers.

The Wayne County Board of Election Challengers did not return a request for comment.

The Detroit mayor’s office declined to answer specific questions about threats received by election workers but issued a statement to FRONTLINE expressing confidence in the city’s election process.

“When Joe Biden took the lead in Michigan’s vote count, a lot of people became very animated,” Lawrence Garcia, Detroit’s corporation counsel, said. “Most of that has calmed down over time, but a few people remain upset.” 

ARIZONA

The night after the election, more than 100 supporters of President Trump gathered outside a ballot-counting center in Arizona’s Maricopa County to rally against “Sharpiegate,” an unfounded conspiracy theory claiming election officials had disenfranchised voters by giving them markers that made their ballots unreadable to counting machines. The Washington Post reported that demonstrators shouted angrily at poll workers and that police escorted election workers to their cars after counting ended for the night.

Staff at the [Maricopa County Elections Department] will continue our job, which is to administer elections in the second largest voting jurisdiction in the county,” the Maricopa County Elections Department posted on Twitter the day after the protest. “We will release results again tonight as planned. We thank the [Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] for doing their job, so we can do ours.”

The county elections office declined to comment on whether any direct threats had been made to election workers but told FRONTLINE it takes security seriously and had trained poll workers on safety measures.

“At the Maricopa County Elections Department, where early ballots are processed and counted, we have onsite security for every election, including Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies,” staff member Megan Gilbertson wrote in an email. “After the protests began outside the Elections Department, onsite security was increased.”

GEORGIA

In Georgia, a frenzy over a misleading viral video forced one poll worker into hiding, Regina Waller, a Fulton County representative, told FRONTLINE.

Video showing a poll worker at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta throwing away a piece of paper from a mail-in ballot envelope quickly spread across social media. For some supporters of President Trump, the video appeared to provide hard evidence of corruption in the Georgia vote count.

Fulton County officials quickly debunked the claims. Ballots are printed on oversize, 8.5-by-19-inch sheets of paper, while the paper discarded in the video was standard letter size.

“The worker only discarded a list of instructions each voter receives to assist in completing their absentee ballot,” Waller said. “Voters often included the instructions in the envelopes when returning in their ballots.”

But by the time fact checkers weighed in, the poll worker had already quit and gone into hiding, due to the false accusations against him, the county said in its statement. Election officials told FRONTLINE they have not been able to reach him since; he has not responded to phone calls, Waller said.

For more on the 2020 presidential election, see Whose Vote Countsa documentary from FRONTLINE, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Columbia Journalism School and the USA TODAY NETWORK. The film is available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online library, on YouTube, in the PBS Video App and below.


Dan Glaun, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

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