Death threats to election officials and frontline workers, an intruder breaking the skull of the husband of the Speaker of the House, and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol as lawmakers counted electoral college votes have underscored that election season violence is not confined to Election Day. Election security preparations are necessarily concerned with the safety of early and day-of voters casting ballots as well as the processing or certification of results, protests that can stem from whether or not a candidate accepts those results or chooses to fan discontent among supporters, or potential attacks against election infrastructure itself or the officials overseeing what may be perceived to be flawed systems or procedures.
Add to this diffuse election security landscape extremist movements whose raison d’être is the downfall of government in order for their system to rise from the ashes, and conspiracy theories intended to sow distrust in the electoral process to the extent that an actor could be inspired to violence to stop what they see as a perceived threat to their microcosm or the country as a whole. The heated atmosphere has not cooled since the 2020 election, fueling a midterm season with more security worries than previous off-year elections.
The latest National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin released in June noted that “as the United States enters mid-term election season this year, we assess that calls for violence by domestic violent extremists directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers will likely increase.”
“In the coming months, we expect the threat environment to become more dynamic as several high-profile events could be exploited to justify acts of violence against a range of possible targets,” the bulletin stated. “These targets could include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, U.S. critical infrastructure, the media, and perceived ideological opponents. Threat actors have recently mobilized to violence due to factors such as personal grievances, reactions to current events, and adherence to violent extremist ideologies, including racially or ethnically motivated or anti-government/anti-authority violent extremism. Foreign adversaries — including terrorist organizations and nation state adversaries — also remain intent on exploiting the threat environment to promote or inspire violence, sow discord, or undermine U.S. democratic institutions.”
The most prominent expression of election-related violence still has an ongoing congressional investigation and is still being prosecuted, with 897 defendants connected to the Capitol attack as of Oct. 27 and 26 convictions along with 428 guilty pleas as of Oct. 21, according to GWU Program on Extremism’s Capitol siege tracker. Still unknown is the identity of the hooded pipe bomber who left devices outside of the Capitol Hill headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee the night before.
In mid-October, the FBI cautioned about threats to election workers — including elected officials, appointed officials, staff, volunteers, contractors, vendors and liaisons — that can be communicated via means “such as telephone communications, social media posts, e-mail communications, as well as in-person.” The Threats to Election Workers Task Force was established by the Justice Department in June 2021 to assess and investigate these threats.
ADL and Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative recently launched a first-of-its-kind data collection to track and study threats and harassment of local officials across the United States. Out of the more than 400 cases between January 1, 2020, and September 23, 2022, included in the dataset, 35 percent involve threats or harassment of election officials or poll workers. These cases span 21 states, though Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona accounted for 59 percent of all threats or harassment to election officials or poll workers. “These findings appear to reinforce the FBI’s analysis that threats are more frequent in states with contested election results and lingering election denial activism,” states the report.
Some election threat cases just this year include:
- Travis Ford, 42, of Lincoln, Neb., was sentenced to 18 months in prison last month for threats including telling Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, “Do you feel safe? You shouldn’t. Do you think Soros will/can protect you?” and “Your security detail is far too thin and incompetent to protect you. This world is unpredictable these days….anything can happen to anyone.”
- Mark A. Rissi, 64, of Hiawatha, Iowa, was arrested last month for allegedly leaving a September 2021 voicemail for a Maricopa County, Arizona, election official saying in part, “You’re gonna die, you piece of [expletive]. We’re going to hang you. We’re going to hang you.” Rissi is also accused of leaving a voicemail for an official with the Office of the Arizona Attorney General in which he declared that the state’s election was fraudulent and said, “Do your job, [VICTIM], or you will hang with those [expletive] in the end. We will see to it. Torches and pitchforks. That’s your future, [expletive]. Do your job.”
- Walter Lee Hoornstra, 50, of Tecumseh, Mo., a district technology director for the Gainesville R-5 School District, was indicted in August for allegedly leaving a May 2021 voicemail threat on the personal cell phone of an election official in the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, warning that if they “give [election auditors] any more troubles, your ass will never make it to your next little board meeting.”
- James W. Clark, 38, of Falmouth, Mass., was arrested in July for allegedly sending a bomb threat via the website contact form of the Elections Division at the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, addressed to an election official: “Your attorney general needs to resign by Tuesday February 16th by 9 am or the explosive device impacted in her personal space will be detonated.” The indictment also alleges that Clark searched online for the address of the election official and for “how to kill” the person, and also searched for “fema boston marathon bombing” and “fema boston marathon bombing plan digital army.”
- George Juncaj, 50, of Las Vegas was arrested in January for allegedly making four threatening phone calls to an employee in the Elections Division of the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office in January 2021. According to the employee, the threats included, “I want to thank you for such a great job you all did on stealing the election. I hope you all go to jail for treason. I hope your children get molested. You are all going to (expletive) die.”
- Chad Stark, 54, of Leander, Texas, was arrested in January in the first criminal case brought by the DOJ Election Threats Task Force for allegedly posting on Craigslist threats against Georgia elections and government officials the day before the Capitol riot, including, “Georgia Patriots it’s time to kill [Official A] the Chinese agent – $10,000… If we want our country back we have to exterminate these people.”
The midterm backdrop
Midterm elections are happening days after the shocking hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), at their San Francisco home. David Wayne DePape faces federal charges in connection with the Friday break-in: one count of assault of an immediate family member of a United States official with the intent to retaliate against the official on account of the performance of official duties and one count of attempted kidnapping of a United States official on account of the performance of official duties. According to the criminal complaint, DePape told San Francisco police that “he was going to hold Nancy hostage and talk to her,” and “if Nancy were to tell DePape the ‘truth,’ he would let her go, and if she ‘lied,’ he was going to break ‘her kneecaps.’ DePape was certain that Nancy would not have told the ‘truth.’ In the course of the interview, DePape articulated he viewed Nancy as the ‘leader of the pack’ of lies told by the Democratic Party. DePape also later explained that by breaking Nancy’s kneecaps, she would then have to be wheeled into Congress, which would show other Members of Congress there were consequences to actions. DePape also explained generally that he wanted to use Nancy to lure another individual to DePape.” That individual is not named.
“DePape explained that he did not leave after Pelosi’s call to 9-1-1 because, much like the American founding fathers with the British, he was fighting against tyranny without the option of surrender,” the complaint also noted. “DePape reiterated this sentiment elsewhere in the interview.” ADL’s Center on Extremism reviewed DePape’s blogs and reported anti-government, antisemitic, and white supremacist content.
On a national scale, the attack on the Pelosis has also emphasized how rapidly conspiracy theories can propagate. The 24/7 rumor mills that focus on sowing doubt and conducting character assassinations can also inspire threats or physical violence if a person consuming the conspiracy theory believes that some sort of action is called for on his or her part to rectify the situation.
This election also comes at a time when, in the words of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “outrageously explicit expressions of antisemitism have become almost a daily occurrence.” In online forums, white supremacists have crafted memes praising Kanye West (Ye) for his antisemitic comments and declared that the rapper’s statements have presented a golden opportunity for them to insert more antisemitic messaging into the mainstream and recruit more followers to their movements. A group called the Goyim Defense League hung a banner on a 405 Freeway overpass in Los Angeles declaring “Kanye is right about the Jews” while members of the group gave Nazi salutes; the same message was projected onto TIAA Bank Field and a nearby building in Jacksonville, Fla., during a football game Saturday. This accelerated antisemitic activity is heaped onto the canards — including the claim that Jews control elections — that already saturate online forums.
And in those dark corners of the web, the recent four-year anniversary of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — in which the accused gunman blamed Jews for assisting immigrants — was met not with sorrow but with celebration.
Domestic extremists and election season
The extremists who praise the synagogue shooter as a “saint” celebrated All Saints Day on Nov. 1 by hailing killers from the Civil Rights Era to the present day who were motivated by race, religion, or other issues associated with white supremacist movements. Their most recently “canonized” killer is Juraj Krajcik, who murdered two people at a Bratislava LGBT bar before killing himself and left a manifesto that suggests among targets “traitorous politicians” and their families, declaring, “Target voting booths; target political candidates.”
Krajcik called the Buffalo supermarket shooter “the final nail in the coffin” who compelled him to commit extremist violence. The manifesto attributed to Buffalo suspect Payton Gendron declares that “there is no democratic solution, any attempt to vote your way out of Ethnic replacement will be met with at first with derision, then contempt and finally by force” — a passage lifted from Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto. The manifesto attributed to the El Paso Walmart shooter cites first in his “political reasons” fear of “the Hispanic voting bloc.”
Accelerationist materials online run the gamut in the breadth of targets and tactics discussed and encouraged, ranging from targeting critical infrastructure sectors with the goal of cascading destruction to targeting elected officials. Accelerationism, which counts among its proponents some neo-Nazis and ecofascists, advocates destruction of this society — and its political system — to further the creation of a white ethnostate. The system is viewed as not fixable and elections as useless. Any actions that sow chaos and accelerate societal downfall are welcomed, but actions with greater impact than soft targets are desired — as one accelerationist guide put it, they try to steer adherents to “more fruitful acts that will REALLY harm the system and brings us closer to the collapse that is needed for our race to once again thrive on this planet.”
While panning the electoral system, white supremacist movements have been vocal on political or cultural issues through protests, posting leaflets or banner drops, or encouraging violent action such as a summer acclerationist guide calling for mass attacks on migrants as a “final solution” to illegal immigration or encouraging infiltration of facilities providing abortion services with the aim of attacking staff or patients. Communities that are already highest on the target lists of these movements — Jews, ethnic minorities, and transgender persons — can intersect with issues in this threat landscape, such as the Pittsburgh shooter attacking a Jewish community while citing immigration.
Islamist extremists and election season
In 2016, ISIS released their voting guide the weekend before Election Day with a declaration that “we have come to slaughter you and smash your ballot boxes.” The fine print of their seven-page treatise revealed that their real chagrin was for American Muslims participating in the U.S. electoral process, making the Muslim voter one “whose blood is obligatory to spill unless he repents.” Six years later, Islamist extremists may not expend much energy trying to uproot the “crusader” system via literal ballot-box smashing on an Election Day target in the United States, but the risk remains that lone or cell actors could see the gathering of people at polling places as an opportunistic soft target.
Islamist extremists very much have their eyes on playing the role of instigator to roil America’s political process. As previously reported in HSToday, the propagandist and chief strategist of ISIS Khorasan Province’s Uzbek group said in recent audio messages that the terror group “is pursuing a big policy to bring America’s internal confrontations into civil war with lone-wolf attacks,” citing domestic political issues on the eve of midterm elections. Abu Khuroson al-Mujohid, who theorized that an America embroiled in civil war would not be able to strike at ISIS abroad, also called the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack the “fruit of seeds sown by Osama bin Laden and ISIS.” ISIS-K has also been wading into U.S. issues in its Voice of Khurasan magazine, citing August’s execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago and the reactions of former President Trump and Donald Trump Jr. in declaring that the United States has descended into a “banana republic” ripe for an “Islamic storm” in the terror group’s favor.
This echoes the aims of al-Qaeda and their bid to stoke political violence in the United States from the sidelines, telling “the raiders of the Congress” in a video after the Capitol attack that the “raiders” and similar “impending civil war” participants “will find what they need in the Inspire magazine issued by the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula.” What’s in Inspire, which is easily found online? Recipes for bombs and other devices, tactical advice on target and weapons selection, practical considerations for lone-actor terrorists, etc. “It was Allah’s wisdom that the fourth plane whose downing was ordered by Dick Cheney on the 11th of September did not reach its target and the Americans were left to destroy the edifice of their democracy with their own hands … this hurts them more and brings greater joy to the believers,” al-Qaeda added in their “America Burns” video.
How Polling Places Can Prepare for Potential Election-Season Violence