“I am a hunter – and I think you should be hunted,” a woman can be heard saying in a voicemail left for Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in September. “You will never be safe in Arizona again.”
Or there’s the man who spit, “Die you bitch, die! Die you bitch, die!” repeatedly into the phone, in another of several dozen threatening and angry voicemails directed at the Democratic secretary of state and shared exclusively with CNN by her office.
Officials and aides in secretary of state offices in Arizona and other states targeted by former President Donald Trump in his attack on last year’s election results told CNN about living in constant terror – nervously watching the people around them at events, checking in their rearview mirrors for cars following them home and sitting up at night wondering what might happen next.
Law enforcement has never had to think much about protecting secretaries of state, let alone allocating hundreds of thousands of dollars in security, tracking and follow-up. Their jobs used to be mundane, unexciting, bureaucratic. These are small offices in a handful of states with enormous power in administering elections, from mailing ballots to overseeing voting machines to keeping track of counted votes.
None were prepared to be publicly attacked. They don’t have the budgets to monitor threats, and certainly not to suddenly protect officials who never had to be protected before. No systems were in place on the state or federal level to back them up, and the Department of Justice admits that the federal government doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to handle the situation.
Staff members in the offices say they’re dealing with long-term emotional and psychological trauma after a year of constant threats – in person and virtually – to the secretaries and to themselves.
“Bullet,” read one tweet reply to Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, in September. “That is a six letter word for you.”
An email sent to her office over the summer read: “I’m really jonzing to see your purple face after you’ve been hanged.”
Asked by CNN last week if she feels safe in her job and going about her days, Griswold paused for nearly 30 seconds before answering.
“I take these threats very seriously,” she finally said, choosing her words carefully. “It’s absolutely getting worse,” she added.
The threats come in from their home states and across the country. Few appear to be coordinated or organized, and are instead often driven by momentary, angry reactions to a news story or social media post. But some get very specific, citing details and specifics that leave the secretaries and their staff rushing to report them to authorities.
Most anticipate the threats will increase going into next year, with Republicans around the country making election doubt conspiracies a central plank of their campaigns, and with many of these secretaries of state up for reelection themselves in races that are already generating more attention than ever before, with expectations that they will be the frontlines of potentially trying to overturn the next presidential election.
But Griswold’s problem was, ironically, summed up in one of the tweets her office has tracked: “Your security detail is far too thin and incompetent to protect you. This world is unpredictable these days… anything can happen to anyone.” It ended with a shrug emoji. Griswold’s vulnerability is greater than that person imagined: for now, she’s had to contract private security, and only for official events, squeezing the money out of her small office budget. With all that’s been coming at her, that’s what she has.
Griswold told Gov. Jared Polis, a fellow Democrat, she needs more protection. But so far, the state has not allocated resources for it. State police protected Griswold for two weeks, then stopped, and shelved an investigation into the threats. The governor’s office and the state police did not respond to requests for comment. A state ethics board denied her request to raise outside money for security, arguing that this could lead to an improper mixing of political and government activities. The state police, according to Neil Reiff of the Democratic Association of Secretaries for State, has not provided Griswold security because the threats haven’t met the threshold for state police support.
In the meantime, Griswold moves between frustration and fear, asking why her state government and others, as well as the federal authorities, aren’t moving more quickly to address the threats that she argues are particularly intense for her and her female colleagues in 2020 battleground states. Constantly on edge, she’s tried to keep up a normal schedule in her job, in political activity and in her personal life. Every day she makes decisions about how much, and what she can do.
“When I’m at the center of a national QAnon conspiracy and the very people who have stormed the Capitol are threatening me, it is very concerning. When someone says they know where I live and I should be afraid for my life, I take that as a threat and I believe the state of Colorado should, too,” Griswold said.
The situation got so bad for Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state, that during periods when the threats against her have spiked and gotten specific, she has received periodic 24-hour police protection. But when that security dropped off, the threats continued. Benson had dozens of people show up outside her house last December while she sat inside with her husband and young son, on the phone with the Michigan attorney general who was trying to scramble a police response. It ended up taking authorities 45 minutes to arrive on scene.
This has become her life. “It creates an air of apprehension everywhere you go and over everything you do. You’re always looking behind your back and over your shoulder,” she said.
Asked if she feels safe, Benson said, “Sometimes.” And that’s mostly because it’s been a year since the last election and a year until the next one. She said she’s worried because there have not been more arrests. “The lack of accountability means one thing: we have to anticipate that it will continue, and then as we close in on next year’s election and 2024, I think it will simply continue to escalate, unless there are real consequences.”
‘I didn’t feel comfortable walking the dog on the street’
Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat who was Pennsylvania’s secretary of state until February, received protection that began the week before the election last November, at the urging of her staff and state capitol police. But the threats against her ramped up significantly after she certified the election for Joe Biden later that month, as Trump and his allies attempted to make Pennsylvania the first major battleground for his election lies.
Protests against Boockvar were announced on the right-wing social media website Parler.
“You crooked f**king bitch. You’re done,” said one man who left Boockvar a voice mail that was shared with CNN.
Boockvar and her husband felt unsafe at home and decided to stay elsewhere. Multiple police jurisdictions were involved in helping provide protection to Boockvar as the threats continued, she said.
“I didn’t feel comfortable walking the dog on the street,” she told CNN.
Boockvar resigned for reasons unrelated to the election, and though the threats mostly died down in the months since, they haven’t gone away completely: threats against her still occasionally pop up.
The threats aren’t only toward Democrats, or women. Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia whom Trump has both privately pressured and publicly singled out for not overturning the election results in his favor, has been inundated with threats since the November election, including those directed at his wife and family.
Raffensperger told CNN he’s frustrated with elected officials allied with Trump who have continued to spread the former President’s lies about the election being stolen – lies that prompt Trump’s supporters to direct their anger toward officials like Raffensperger. Trump has endorsed GOP Rep. Jody Hice, who has backed his baseless claims of election fraud, against Raffensperger in next year’s primary.
“Some people have made comments that, ‘It comes with the territory.’ I find that beyond the pale,” Raffensperger said. “What you’re talking about is not just myself, but you’re also talking about my wife, my daughter-in-law, my family.”
Raffensperger said he’s seen more action recently from law enforcement in response to the threats to election workers. He was told that the FBI had knocked on the doors of individuals in Alabama and the Midwest as part of investigations into those who had sent him threats. A spokesman for the FBI’s Atlanta field office declined to comment on any investigations into threats against Raffensperger.
No one has been arrested in relation to threats made toward Raffensperger, however.
Several other officials declined requests to speak about their experiences, telling CNN through representatives either that they have been advised by security teams not to risk calling more attention to their vulnerabilities or because they were too shaken by the experiences to discuss what they’ve been through publicly. Many have had to rely on makeshift threat monitoring on their own. In Colorado and California, for example, the secretary of state offices had already been following chatter about attacks on election infrastructure on the dark web. Now that has been expanded to include following chatter about security threats to the officials themselves. But without funding to do this, employees without security training are doing it on a part-time basis, hoping to catch what they can and properly assess when they do.
A recognition that the response has been inadequate
The Justice Department launched a new task force this summer to address the rise in threats to election officials. But there are concerns that it’s not prepared to do enough.
John Keller, the head of the task force and principal deputy chief of the department’s Public Integrity Section, told the National Association of Secretaries of State summer meeting in August that “there’s recognition that in this last election cycle, there was a greater number of election related threats than this country has ever seen before,” adding, “there’s also a recognition that the response has been inadequate.”
The presentation followed a cheery video of an astronaut on the International Space Station, talking up how easy it was to vote by mail.
When Griswold voiced her concerns directly, asking what’s being done to track threats to officials like her on social media, Keller responded, “just as it is overwhelming for you, especially doing that on a national scale, there is not an infrastructure set up yet to do a full national ongoing review of anything potentially threatening in the election space.”
Griswold had suggested DOJ start by just monitoring the social media accounts of her and others who have faced the most intense responses. Keller gave the secretaries of state an 800-number and website to report threats, and he encouraged them to reach out to their local FBI offices. Aides have spent months forwarding threats to the FBI and their local authorities. But amidst incoming threats, their feelings of security and support come and go.
“People are potentially spiraling out of control,” Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, warned Keller at the event, asking for more help. Officials in several offices tell CNN they feel like they’re in what they describe as a victim-blaming circle, with law enforcement saying they can’t help them because the offices can’t keep up with all the information and get it to the authorities.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray told more than 1,400 election workers during a virtual discussion in August that Wray had directed FBI agents in all 56 field offices to work with state and local elections officials about threats. Last month, DOJ held a training with FBI agents and assistant US attorneys across the country who are focusing on election crime enforcement.
“We are, of course, under no illusions that our expressions of concern and assignment of law enforcement resources has solved this problem,” Garland said in August.
A Justice Department spokesman said that the task force was collecting and analyzing information that’s reported to try to develop nationwide trends related to common tactics and actors, including whether threats are coming through text messages, voice mails, calls or social media. The spokesman said DOJ was committed to ensuring that all threats to election officials and workers were assessed, including victim outreach and FBI intervention when warranted.
“Threats against election workers have historically been handled primarily as a state or local matter, usually without significant federal involvement,” Keller said in a statement to CNN. “This is changing rapidly in response to the surge in threats nationwide since the last election cycle. The Justice Department is now supplementing state and local efforts with resources, national coordination, training and intelligence, as well as specially designated federal agents and prosecutors in every jurisdiction in the country.”
Part of what the secretaries are facing is the line law enforcement tends to draw in assessing a threat: a person fantasizing about how great it would be to see an official get hurt is seen as protected under free speech, and isn’t the same as a person laying out a specific threat for how and when to hurt an official. That’s not much comfort to Griswold. “I realize that most of it is probably bluster, but what’s concerning is the one time it’s not,” she said.
A Reuters analysis last month found that out of 102 threats of death or violence made against election officials, it could only confirm four had led to arrests.
‘A breaking point’
Hobbs was one of several state and local election officials who testified at a Senate hearing Tuesday about threats to elections and election workers, warning about the consequences of them.
“We’re already seeing high turnover among elections staff, and I fear that many more will reach a breaking point and decide that this line of public service is no longer worth it,” Hobbs told the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
Griswold said that in addition to the safety concerns for her and her counterparts, as much as 40% of election and poll workers in the largest jurisdictions in the country have so far said they won’t be returning to the job out of their own fears. Other states are seeing drop-offs too. Nearly one in three local election workers said they felt unsafe because of their jobs, according to an April survey on behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice, with about 17% of those who responded saying they had received threats.
The Biden administration on Tuesday announced Washington state Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican who criticized Trump’s election lies, would lead the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to defend election systems from foreign and domestic interference, though that’s separate from protecting election officials from threats of violence.
In the face of what is expected to be growing threats, these officials are trying to stay optimistic and determined about their duties. It hasn’t been easy.
Hobbs is running for governor of Arizona next year, and taunting her over her administration of last year’s election has become a central part of the campaign against her. “I think she should be locked up,” said Republican candidate Kari Lake, who’s endorsed by both Trump and chief election fabulist Mike Lindell, at an event in Arizona earlier this month.
And the threats kept pouring in.
“To say that we shouldn’t be taking it seriously is missing what is going on in this nation. And what is going on in this nation is the dismantling of democracy,” Griswold said. “And threats to election workers and those of us who are fighting to stop a political party from tilting future elections in their favor to steal these seats is part of it.”
This story has been updated with Hobbs’ Senate testimony.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated where election and poll workers have said they’re not returning to work. As much as 40% of them in the largest jurisdictions in the country have said they won’t be returning to their jobs, according to Griswold.