DETROIT (Reuters) – Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s top election official, had just finished hanging Christmas decorations with her young son on Saturday night when a crowd demanding November’s presidential election result be reversed gathered outside her home to denounce her as a “traitor” and a “criminal.”
The demonstrators, some armed and holding up placards saying “Stop the Steal”, clustered on the sidewalk outside Benson’s Detroit home as security and police officers looked on, video broadcast live on Facebook by one of the participants showed.
“Through threats of violence, intimidation, and bullying, the armed people outside my home and their political allies seek to undermine and silence the will and voices of every voter in this state,” Benson, Michigan’s Democratic Secretary of State, said in a statement on Sunday.
The demonstration was the latest of what election authorities across the United States describe as a tide of intimidation, harassment and outright threats in the charged aftermath of the Nov. 3 election, which Republican President Donald Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Trump has made unsubstantiated claims of widespread electoral fraud and is trying but failing to overturn Biden’s victory, challenging the outcome in court in multiple states while also pressing state officials, lawmakers and governors to throw the results out and simply declare Trump the winner.
Courts have so far rejected those requests.
Supporters of Trump in recent weeks have staked out election officials’ offices in Georgia, mounted armed protests in Arizona and left menacing telephone messages for election officials across the country, producing political turmoil unlike any other in modern U.S. history.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said that the baseless fraud claims and subsequent threats against election officials are “very damaging to our democracy. I hope it’s not the end of our democracy.”
“We cannot allow our elected officials to live in fear at all times whenever someone doesn’t like how they believe they’ve perform their job duties,” Nessel told Reuters.
Michigan, Arizona and Georgia were among a handful of hotly contested battleground states that Biden won, helping to secure his 306 to 232 advantage in the Electoral College that will officially select the next president on Dec. 14.
But the threats have not been confined to places where the election was close. In Vermont — a state no Republican presidential candidate has won since 1988 — election officials said they received a voice message threatening them with “execution by firing squad.”
“No public servant should ever have to feel threatened or concerned for their safety while they are doing their work,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, told Reuters.
“The conspiracy theories and unfounded rhetoric that are being pushed by the president and his campaign team really could inspire some dangerous behavior somewhere in this country. It starts at the top and it really needs to stop.”
Asked to comment, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, Tim Murtaugh, said: “No one should engage in threats or violence, and if that has happened, we condemn that fully.”
He added that the campaign’s lawyers had themselves been “inundated with threats from leftist Biden supporters” and their personal information posted online.
TRUMP ATTACKS HIS OWN
Trump and his political backers have blasted Republicans leaders and election officials in Georgia and Arizona for certifying Biden as the winner in their states.
Trump himself has described Georgia’s Republican secretary of state as an “enemy of the people”, and one of his lawyers, Joe diGenova, said last week the administration’s former election cybersecurity chief should be “taken out at dawn and shot” for publicly defending the integrity of the election.
Several election workers contacted by Reuters said they did not want to speak about the threats they had received for fear it would make things worse.
Georgia officials were similarly reticent until last week, when threats online targeted a young contract worker for Dominion Voting Systems, whose voting machines were used in the state. One post on Twitter included a swinging noose.
That day, Gabriel Sterling, the Republican in charge of the voting machines, walked to a podium visibly angry and demanded that Trump “stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.”
In an interview with Reuters, Sterling said that he personally had received a message calling him a him “traitor” that included his home address. Someone else wished him a happy birthday in a tweet saying it would be his last.
After his local police chief suggested he notify his neighbors, he posted on a local Facebook page urging them to call authorities if they saw anything suspicious.
“I shouldn’t have to do that,” he said.
On Monday, Georgia again certified that Biden had won after counting ballots for a third time.
(Reporting by Brad Heath in Washington and Michael Martina in Detroit, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Sonya Hepinstall)