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Terrorized U.S. election officials, staff receiving little help from police over threats

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The death threats brought Staci McElyea to tears. The caller said that McElyea and other workers in the Nevada Secretary of State’s office were “going to f—— die.” She documented the threats and alerted police, who identified and interviewed the caller. But in the end, detectives said there was nothing they could do – that the man had committed no crime.

The first call came at 8:07 a.m. on Jan. 7, hours after Congress certified Donald Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in the November 2020 presidential vote. The caller accused McElyea of “stealing” the election, echoing Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. “I hope you all go to jail for treason. I hope your children get molested. You’re all going to f—— die,” he told her.

He called back three times over the next 15 minutes, each time telling her she was “going to die.”

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McElyea, 53, a former U.S. Marine, called the Nevada Capitol Patrol and sent the state police agency a transcript of the calls, according to emails Reuters obtained through a public-records request. An officer contacted the man – who police would later identify as Gjurgi Juncaj of Las Vegas – and reported back to McElyea that their inquiry “might have pissed him off even further,” the emails showed.

A week later, state police concluded that Juncaj’s threats were not criminal, characterizing them as “protected” political speech, according to a summary of the case. Juncaj was never arrested or charged. Asked about the calls, Juncaj told Reuters he didn’t believe he had done anything wrong. “Like I explained to the police, I didn’t threaten anybody,” he said.

The case illustrates the glaring gaps in the protection that U.S. law enforcement provides the administrators of American democracy amid a sustained campaign of intimidation against election officials and staff. The unprecedented torrent of terroristic threats began in the weeks before the November election, as Trump was predicting widespread voter fraud, and continues today as the former president carries on with false claims that he was cheated out of victory.

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In an investigation that identified hundreds of incidents of intimidation and harassment of election workers and officials nationwide, Reuters found only a handful of arrests.

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Local police agencies said in interviews that they have struggled to identify suspects who conceal their identities and to determine which threats are credible enough to prosecute. The U.S. Justice Department has acknowledged that law enforcement has not responded well to the surge in threats to election officials.

“The response has been inadequate,” John Keller, a senior attorney in the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section, told a meeting of secretaries of state in Iowa on Aug. 14. Keller heads a task force created in July to investigate threats of violence to election workers and to coordinate with local and state authorities that receive most initial reports of intimidation.

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After this story was published, Justice Department spokesman Joshua Stueve issued a statement to Reuters about the wave of threats. “The Justice Department is committed to aggressively addressing threats of violence directed toward state and local election workers and will work tirelessly with our federal, state, and local partners to strengthen our collective efforts to combat this recent and entirely unacceptable phenomenon,” Stueve wrote.

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The Reuters investigation revealed a breakdown in coordination and accountability among various levels of law enforcement. Some election officials fumed that police investigators or federal agents didn’t appear to take the threats seriously and that it was unclear which agency, if any, was investigating. Some said they never heard from investigators again after reporting threats of violence. When pressed about the status of some cases, several police officials said they had no involvement and pointed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Federal officials, by contrast, bemoaned a lack of information-sharing by local authorities.

Through public records and interviews, Reuters documented 102 threats of death or violence received by more than 40 election officials, workers and their relatives in eight of the most contested battleground states in the 2020 presidential contest. Each was explicit enough to put a reasonable person in fear of bodily harm or death, the typical legal threshold for prosecution.

Almost all of the 102 threats of violence appeared to be inspired by Trump’s debunked claims that the election was rigged against him. The messages often included highly personal, sometimes sexualized threats of violence or death, not only to the officials themselves but also to their family members and their children.

A spokesman for Trump did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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Reuters interviewed 26 election officials for this story, including eight secretaries of state. Only one of those officials, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, was aware of anyone being charged in connection to the intimidation. That incident is among just four nationwide in which Reuters was able to document an arrest, based on public records or news accounts, though it is possible that more arrests were made.

Those four open cases have yet to result in a conviction.

The 102 threats were the most egregious examples among a larger set of hundreds of hostile messages received by local and state election workers, according to interviews and records documenting the intimidation. In addition to the messages that threatened violence, hundreds of others contained harassing language that was disturbing, profane and sometimes racist or misogynistic. The intimidation has affected all levels of election administrators, from rank-and-file poll workers to secretaries of state.

In his August speech, Keller, the Justice Department task-force leader, said the department has until recently had little visibility into threats received by election workers. That’s changing, he said, with the task force now collecting threats from election officials through the FBI’s 56 field offices, rather than relying on local law enforcement.

But he added that federal authorities lacked the “infrastructure” to monitor threats against all officials. “We’re relying heavily right now on reports from individuals who are aware of these kinds of threats.”

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The FBI’s Washington headquarters, along with field offices in several states, declined to comment for this story.

Often, police have failed to identify the person making reported threats to election workers. But some police who have identified suspects have determined they committed no crime. In the Nevada incident, the investigating detective concluded in his summary of the case that the threats constituted legally protected speech because the suspect merely said he “wished” election workers would die.

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McElyea’s witness account contradicts the detective’s assessment and never quotes the caller saying he “wished” death on election workers. Rather, she makes clear the man repeatedly told her that she and her colleagues would be killed. “This is what you’re going to f—— get from now on,” her transcript quotes the caller as saying. “You’re all going to f—— die, and it is what you deserve.”

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That language rises to the level of a criminal threat that could be prosecuted under federal law, said Jared Carter, a law professor at Cornell University and specialist in protected speech who reviewed the threat at the request of Reuters. “Whoever made that call is certainly at risk of being prosecuted,” said Carter, who is not connected to the case.

State police declined to comment when asked if the investigating detective mischaracterized the threat.

Two prosecutors and three constitutional law experts interviewed for this story said the rash of threats against election workers has exposed confusion in law enforcement over protections for political speech. Threats to commit any violence – especially repeated threats intended to cause terror – are not protected by the First Amendment, said Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice who now teaches at Georgetown Law School. McCord and other experts say some incidents pose challenges for prosecutors, and that applicable laws don’t prescribe any “magic words” that a threat must include to constitute a crime.

A number of state and federal laws allow for the prosecution of people who threaten political violence. Many states make it a felony to threaten acts of terrorism, according to a recent report by Georgetown Law School’s Crime and Justice Institute. Such laws generally define terrorism as violent acts intended to coerce a political outcome, such as reversing an election result. Prosecutors also can use anti-stalking laws to charge people with committing acts of intimidation, scholars say. And federal law makes it a felony to issue a threat across state lines, such as by phone or email.

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As law enforcement struggles to respond effectively, some election officials are taking responsibility for their own security. Milwaukee’s city election commissioner, Claire Woodall-Vogg, plans to install security glass in her office. A senior county election official in Arizona said in an interview that he wears body armor whenever he leaves his house. Janice Winfrey, Detroit’s city clerk, took firearms training and now carries a concealed weapon after receiving threats.

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“I never believed in guns before, even living in Detroit,” which is historically among America’s most violent cities, she said. “I was afraid for my life.”

Law enforcement’s inaction has frustrated some of the election officials living in fear of being assaulted or killed. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) has made no arrests after investigating threats against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, and his family. The Raffenspergers received dozens of menacing messages that were documented in a Reuters investigation published in June.

Some of the threats to the Raffenspergers and other election officials were investigated by the GBI, and more serious threats involving imminent physical harm were investigated by the FBI, according to a statement from the Georgia Attorney General’s office. The AG determined that none of the threats it reviewed rose to the level of criminal conduct, the office said.

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The FBI’s Atlanta field office declined to comment on its investigation of the threats.

No arrests have been made.

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Tricia Raffensperger, wife of the secretary of state, said the lack of action to protect election workers stands in stark contrast to the Justice Department’s sprawling investigation into the pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January, which has produced about 600 arrests.

“You look at January 6 and how many people they’ve arrested,” she said in an interview. “They were able to locate those people and arrest them. Why can’t they follow up on the death threats we get?”

“The only way it’s going to stop is when people get caught,” she said.

The FBI is now stepping up its investigation into the threats against Georgia election officials that were first reported by Reuters in June, according to Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron. Barron said he met last week with an FBI agent and a GBI agent seeking more information about the threats. The FBI agent, Barron said, told him that Reuters’ reporting had pressured the Department of Justice to intensify the probe. The investigators, he said, asked for documentation of threats against Barron and said they also would investigate intimidation of others in his office.

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Local, state and federal authorities have also looked into credible death threats against senior election officials in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Colorado, but have so far made no arrests, according to election officials in those states who are familiar with the investigations.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who says she continues to get regular death threats, said the lack of prosecutions is “concerning when people are telling you repeatedly they’re going to come hang you, they’re repeatedly threatening you. And that they know where you live, and they’re going to come and get you.”

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‘I see you sleeping. Be afraid’

Griswold’s social media accounts lit up with threats after she adopted rules on June 17 forbidding partisan post-election audits in Colorado similar to those being conducted in Arizona and Wisconsin, which are led by pro-Trump politicians who have amplified his debunked election fraud claims. Reviewing the threats at home, Griswold took screenshots on her cell phone to preserve evidence.

“Patriots will take care of you. I would move and change your address… quickly,” read an Instagram comment. “Guess who is going to hang when all the fraud is revealed? (*Hint ..look in the mirror).” Another comment under a childhood photo she had posted online, to wish her dad a happy Father’s Day, read: “Prepare for the gallows.”

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The comments were from Instagram user stevet420, who had been posting harassing and threatening messages against Griswold since April, according to his posts, which have since been deleted.

She sent the screenshots to the Colorado State Patrol, which responded by providing Griswold, 36, with around-the-clock protection for three weeks from late June as officers investigated. They identified stevet420 as Steven Telepchak, a 42-year-old information-technology manager in Pennsylvania, but did not pursue charges.

“These posts have been thoroughly investigated, and there are no planned arrests based upon the findings,” Colorado State Police said in a statement, declining to explain why the force dropped the case.

Telepchak did not respond to requests for comment.

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Griswold lamented that no one has been held accountable. While her police protection has ended, the threats of violence have not, she said.

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“Watch your back. I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP, I SEE YOU SLEEPING. BE AFRAID,” said one Facebook message on Aug. 10. Another anonymous caller telephoned her office on Aug. 3 and said he was “going to shoot every employee in the building,” Griswold said.

Each day, a member of Griswold’s staff with no background in security scours the Internet looking for threatening messages, she said. Griswold requested an additional security detail from state police after the most recent threats, but was denied.

“The level to get security is not that ‘I’m going to come kill you,’ or ‘I am going to come kill you with a gun,’” she said. “It’s like: ‘I am going to come kill you on a Tuesday with a gun,’ and I have to send it to you 20 times.”

Colorado State Patrol said it decides on protection details on a case-by-case basis and declined further comment on why Griswold’s request was not granted.

“All messages of concern are reviewed and investigated thoroughly,” a State Patrol spokesman said.

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‘Cops can’t help you’

In Philadelphia, the three city commissioners and a senior official overseeing elections faced at least a dozen death threats in October and November, according to interviews with the officials and a Reuters review of the threatening messages sent to them. The threats started before the November election, as Trump publicly told his supporters to expect voter fraud in Philadelphia. The city’s police department considered the threats serious enough to station officers outside their homes. One official and the family of another went into hiding for a few days.

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No one has been arrested in connection with the threats. The FBI was called to investigate, the city officials said. The FBI’s Philadelphia Division declined to comment. The Philadelphia Police Department declined to comment on whether it investigated threats against the city officials.

Seth Bluestein, a deputy to Republican Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, is disappointed by the lack of effective enforcement. “The individuals who are making the threats should be held accountable,” he said.

Bluestein faced a blast of threats on Facebook and in text messages to his phone, including several with anti-Semitic rhetoric. The intimidation started soon after the election when he was criticized by an official at a Trump campaign news conference, who falsely claimed Bluestein had intimidated Trump’s election observers.

“EVERYONE WITH A GUN IS GOING TO BE AT YOUR HOUSE- AMERICANS LOOK AT THE NAME- ANOTHER JEW CAUGHT UP IN UNITED STATES VOTER FRAUD,” read one Facebook message to Bluestein.

Bluestein’s boss, Schmidt, was targeted by a torrent of threats starting on Nov. 11, when Schmidt appeared on CNN saying he had seen no evidence of widespread election fraud. The appearance sparked a Twitter tirade from Trump, who questioned whether Schmidt was really a Republican.

Over the next month, Schmidt received multiple death threats, according to the messages reviewed by Reuters. Some targeted his wife or threatened his children by name. One threat included a photo of his house taken from a real-estate website and said his family “will be fatally shot.”

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“Cops can’t help you,” it went on. “Heads on spikes. Treasonous Schmidts.”

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Police stationed officers outside Schmidt’s home. His wife and children stayed with relatives for about a week, escorted by a security detail. Schmidt’s elderly parents also received extra security, in part because they live nearby and Schmidt and his father share the same name.

Schmidt said the FBI has investigated the threats, and the agents took them seriously. Philadelphia’s two other city commissioners, Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir, both Democrats, also received death threats and police protection. Sabir said he spent several nights in October hiding out at a hotel. Deeley said she suffers occasional anxiety attacks as a result of the threats.

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar saw a surge in the volume and severity of threats on Nov. 13, when she confirmed that there would be no recount of the state’s results in the presidential vote. One message warned that an assailant would come to her home in the middle of the night and kill her, she said in an interview. She and her husband fled their home and went into hiding for a week.

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No one has been arrested. Boockvar says she never got word of any inquiry.

“Everybody was perplexed about what to do,” she said of the law enforcement response.

Boockvar has since left her position as secretary of state for reasons unrelated to the threats. The Capitol Police, which oversees security on state-owned property, said it investigated four threats against Boockvar and her staff but made no arrests because the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office advised that the threats could not be prosecuted. The Capitol Police declined to detail the nature of the threats it examined or release any reports on the investigation.

“These cases did not involve any explicit threats to cause harm,” said the county district attorney, Fran Chardo. “As distasteful as the messages were, they could not support criminal charges.”

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Death threats not ‘taken seriously’

Some of the most severe threats documented by Reuters came in Georgia, where Republican state election officials were targeted as traitors by Trump and many of his supporters for refusing to overturn his election loss in the traditionally conservative state.

Republican Secretary of State Raffensperger, along with his family and staff, received a deluge of death threats after he pushed back against Trump’s stolen-election claims. His wife, Tricia, spoke with Reuters about the family’s ordeal in June and recently. She said she forwarded every harassing message she received to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

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“Every time I got one, I sent it off immediately,” she said.

In January, someone communicated a threat directly to the GBI that warned the Raffenspergers’ home would be bombed, Tricia said. The bomb threat, which has not previously been reported, caused the Raffenspergers to take precautions including starting their car remotely from a safe distance before driving anywhere.

Senior officials in Raffensperger’s office, who also received frequent death threats, said they too forwarded their messages to the GBI. The GBI investigated some of the threats and forwarded those considered “life-threatening” to the FBI, the Georgia AG’s office said. In some cases, state investigators could not identify a suspect, the office said. In cases where they could identify and contact the person making the threats, the AG’s office decided against filing charges. The office declined to comment on why the incidents did not meet the legal standard for prosecution.

Following the June Reuters report detailing the intimidation of the Raffenspergers, the FBI contacted the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, asking the office to share the threats again, said Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs. “I don’t understand why they weren’t taken seriously to begin with,” said Fuchs. “We had already reported them.”

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Brad Raffensperger, running for re-election next year, said he is concerned that communities nationwide will struggle to find enough poll workers to help run elections unless the people threatening election staff are arrested and punished.

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“People need to realize that what they say does have consequences,” he said in an interview.

Barron, the elections director in Georgia’s biggest county, said he worries about the lack of accountability. His office in Fulton County has faced a stream of threatening messages involving the 2020 election, including a voicemail in June that warned: “time’s running out.” The anonymous caller singled Barron out by name in a vulgar message calling him a “communist” and warning: “You’re going to be served lead.”

Another caller on June 14 threatened to shoot the county’s voter education and outreach staff and use his “second amendment right,” a reference to the U.S. Constitution’s right to bear arms, according to an email reporting the threat by an election worker who received it.

Barron said these previously unreported threats and dozens of others against his staff were sent to the Fulton County Police Department. The local department then liaises with the FBI and GBI, according to Wade Yates, the county police chief.

None of the incidents have produced arrests. Yates said investigations into threats made online can be especially “cumbersome,” particularly when senders mask their identity. The department, he said, also struggles to make cases because of free-speech issues.

“Everyone who receives a nasty email or a threat has a right to be concerned about it, but we have to vet those and determine which ones are real threats versus free speech,” said Yates.

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Gun training

In Detroit, city clerk Winfrey has prepared to defend herself after receiving threats on her life.

She began carrying a firearm after a man confronted her outside her home in November, accusing her office of rigging the election against Trump. That evening, the same man sent her a Facebook message threatening to blow up her neighbourhood block, prompting her to alert Detroit Police, she said. Her children bought her a stun gun and mace. Winfrey got a concealed pistol license, a gun and training in how to shoot it. “I always have something with me now,” she said.

Winfrey said she reported the confrontation and the Facebook threat to police, who responded and took her statement. She said she later deleted that and other harassing messages because they were disturbing.

Detroit police spokesman Rudy Harper said that the department did not investigate the matter as a crime because the man did not threaten violence when he confronted Winfrey outside her home. Harper said the department had no record of the bomb threat made on Facebook.

In some cases, election workers who received threats have spent months wondering if anything was being done about them. On Nov. 17, a man telephoned Antonio Luna, a worker in Arizona’s Maricopa County Elections Department, threatening to shoot and kill him. Two weeks later, Luna received a call from the same man on the same number, who again threatened him with death, according to a transcript of the call created by Luna.

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“He has my name now,” Luna wrote in a Dec. 1 email to senior Maricopa County election officials.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the case, said its detectives were unable to identify a suspect and the case was closed. No arrests were made. Luna only learned the case was closed when Reuters told him.

“I never heard anything back,” he said.

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