U.S. election officials in several states said Thursday they are worried about the safety of their staffs amid a stream of threats and gatherings of angry protesters outside their doors, drawn by President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud in the race for the White House.
“I can tell you that my wife and my mother are very concerned for me,” said Joe Gloria, the registrar in Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas. He said his staff was bolstering security and tracking vehicles coming and going from the election offices.
But he added that he and others would not be stopped from “doing what our duty is and counting ballots.”
Groups of Trump supporters have gathered at vote tabulation sites in Phoenix, Detroit and Philadelphia, decrying counts that showed Democrat Joe Biden leading or gaining ground.
While the protests have not been violent or very large, local officials were distressed by the crowds and concerned about the relentless accusations.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel tweeted a plea to “stop making harassing & threatening calls” to her staff.
“Asking them to shove sharpies in uncomfortable places is never appropriate & is a sad commentary on the state of our nation,” wrote Nessel, a Democrat, referring to a false conspiracy theory that Trump supporters were told to fill out ballots with Sharpie markers instead of regular pens so that their votes wouldn’t be counted by the machines.
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, speaking on CNN, said her main concern was staff safety but that sheriff’s deputies were providing protection. She said the protesters were “causing delay and disruption and preventing those employees from doing their job”
On Thursday, about 100 Trump supporters gathered again in front of the Maricopa County election centre in Phoenix, some carrying military-style rifles and handguns. Arizona law allows people to openly carry guns.
Authorities at the centre used fences to create a “freedom of speech zone” and keep the entrance to the building open. The crowd took turns chanting — “Count the votes!” and “Four more years!” — and complaining through a megaphone about the voting process.
They paused to listen as Trump spoke from the White House, where he repeated many of his groundless assertions of a rigged vote.
They whooped and clapped when the president said, “We’re on track to win Arizona.” The Associated Press has called Arizona for Biden.
In Atlanta, roughly 100 chanting Trump supporters gathered outside State Farm Arena as votes were being counted. Several Atlanta police officers monitored the scene.
Tom Haas, 50, who said he was visiting Atlanta from Chicago on business, said he was convinced Trump had won the election. “There’s obvious voter fraud, and it’s coming out of the larger Democratic-run cities,” he said. “Atlanta is one of them.”
“Our democracy is under attack,” he said, echoing Trump’s language. “We’re losing America because we’re losing a fair election for the nation.”
A few dozen Trump supporters gathered outside Detroit’s convention centre Thursday morning as election workers counted absentee ballots inside. The protesters held signs that read, “Stop the steal” and “Stop the cheat.” In Las Vegas, about 100 backers of the president chanted as they stood along the road in front of the election offices.
Meanwhile, Facebook banned a large group called “Stop the Steal” that Trump supporters were using to organize protests against the vote count. Some members had called for violence, while many falsely claimed Democrats are stealing the election.
Though the group amassed more than 350,000 members before Facebook took it down, it was just one of several smaller groups that popped up as vote counting extended for days in several battleground states. Inside the groups, members and organizers tried to ensure they would get around Facebook’s moderators and “trolls” who might report or mock them.
Facebook said it will continue to watch for activity that violates its rules and will take action if it does. As of Thursday afternoon, a copycat “Stop the Steal” group was growing steadily, nearing 13,000 members, and others were easily searchable on Facebook.
Inside the groups, members posted baseless claims of voter fraud and organized protests. Calls for violence were not immediately apparent, although the the Center for Countering Digital Hate shared a screenshot of one post in the now-banned group that read “Neither side is going to concede. Time to clean the guns, time to hit the streets.”
By Thursday afternoon, Facebook banned the #stopthesteal hashtag, too. But it easily could have done so earlier. The term and similar ones were mentioned nearly 120,000 times on websites and social media platforms throughout the day Tuesday, according to analysis from media intelligence firm Zignal Labs.
Also on Thursday, Twitter banned an account used by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. The right-wing provocateur, who used the handle “warroompandemic,” had called for the beheading of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray on his talk show.
As of Thursday evening, Bannon’s account was still active on Facebook, where the video calling for Fauci and Wray to be executed had been viewed nearly 200,000 times in ten hours. Late Thursday, Facebook said it had removed videos of Bannon’s remarks for violating its policy on violence and incitement.
AP reporters Gillian Flaccus in Portland, Terry Tang in Phoenix, Claire Galofaro in Detroit, Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta and Amy Forliti in Minneapolis contributed to this report.