‘It’s absolutely getting worse’: Secretaries of state targeted by Trump election lies

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.

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.

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.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has received threatening and agry voicemails.

“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.

Little protection

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who says the threats are getting worse, has asked for more protection.
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, seen here during a November 2020 news conference when she was Pennsylvania secretary of state, said she felt so unsafe she had to leave her home and stay elsewhere.

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.

Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's secretary of state, says he's frustrated with elected officials allied with Trump who have spread the former President's election lies.

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…

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