Donald Trump’s propagation of the baseless lie that the 2020 election was stolen has spawned an epidemic of death threats directed at election workers. In an alarming recent survey by the nonpartisan Brennan Center, one in three election workers reported feeling unsafe, one in five listed threats to their lives as a concern, and one in six reported being threatened because of their job. But despite that deluge of threats directed at election workers, arrests and prosecutions have been few and far between, even though the intimidation of election workers violates at least three different federal civil rights laws as well as other statutes banning threats of force or violence. Fortunately, the Department of Justice recently took an important first step to counter these threats by forming a new task force devoted to combating threats of violence against election workers.
The mandate of this task force is crucial for the continued functioning of our democracy. Americans can’t exercise their right to vote without election workers to run polls and count the ballots, and having anything close to one-third of election workers fearing for their safety is simply unsustainable. The task force therefore must leverage the full arsenal of federal laws to protect America’s election workers.
But as DOJ veterans will tell you, the creation of a task force doesn’t guarantee action. Notably, DOJ took more than a month between issuing initial internal guidance and actually launching the task force. And beyond announcing that the task force will be led by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, DOJ has neither announced any indictments or provided details on who will supervise day-to-day task force operations.
Congress and the public should therefore be vigilant in holding DOJ accountable for opening investigations, filing charges, and producing meaningful results. Unfortunately, many efforts to enforce civil rights laws have been thwarted in the past by disagreements between United States Attorney’s Offices and lawyers at Main Justice. That can’t happen here. Successfully investigating and prosecuting the individuals and organizations terrorizing election officials will require coordination between and active participation of multiple components of DOJ—including the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section, the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal and Voting Rights Sections, U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country, and the FBI—along with local law enforcement.
To make sure this happens, DOJ leadership must create a clear internal chain of command, explicitly instruct its lawyers to work collaboratively, and create accountability mechanisms for ensuring that cases are being investigated and prosecuted. Main Justice expertise on the laws that govern voting-related violence can’t be ignored. Prosecutors from the Public Integrity Section wrote the book on election-related crimes, and prosecutors from the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section have vast experience handling cases involving threats as well as cases in which proof of a motive to violate federal rights is required. The expertise possessed by federal prosecutors in the field about the bad actors and vulnerable victims in their communities, their trial experience, and local knowledge, is equally indispensable. The job of DOJ’s leadership is to ensure that these resources are maximized, so the task force can effectively execute its critical mandate.
Having anything close to one-third of election workers fearing for their safety is simply unsustainable.
Perhaps most importantly, DOJ leadership must give the FBI clear marching orders on how to prioritize and conduct these investigations. All too often, the FBI has failed to take with sufficient seriousness threats of violence by white men and has refused to use the tools readily at its disposal—such as information that is publicly available on the internet—to thwart right-wing violence (see questions 1-4 for Director Wray here). This will have to change for the new task force to have any chance to succeed, as it already appears that the FBI has neglected to act (or at the very least to act expeditiously) on numerous reports of egregious threats to election officials.
The stakes could not be higher. January 6 has served as a chilling warning that the survival of our democracy is not guaranteed. With this task force, DOJ has the ability to make a meaningful stand against the enemies of free and fair elections. When DOJ is at its best, it has a strong record of bringing successful election intimidation cases. During the Jim Crow-era, DOJ brought over a dozen intimidation lawsuits against over two hundred individuals and multiple corporations, and earned a number of landmark victories protecting the right to vote. The present moment calls for a similar full-throttled response, one that will assure every election worker that the United States government has their backs. DOJ’s leadership has started down the right track. It’s now on all of us to make sure they do what is necessary to stay there.