“Well, Tennessee is watching you, Mr. Rick,” a voicemail said. “I'm just right over the border. We're watching you all closely.”
Another one had a similar message: “Hey Rick, watching this video of you on YouTube. You need to get your act together or people like me really may go after people like you.”
And yet another: “I hope they hang your fucking ass.”
After the 2020 presidential election, hundreds of threatening messages, emails, and voicemails were left for elections workers across the country. This is especially true in election hotspots like Georgia’s Fulton County, where officials were harassed for months over the phone and by email. Local law enforcement has not held anyone accountable, and some workers fear continued harassment in future elections.
Importantly, these calls weren’t anonymous. Instead, they were made by people from across the country who believe the false conspiracy that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump—and that election workers in Fulton County were to blame for massive electoral fraud.
VICE News called them back. These messages were sent without shame: Of the threatening messages reviewed by VICE News, almost all contained the phone numbers, email addresses, or names of the people who had sent or left them. None regretted leaving threatening messages or expressed remorse that their words had caused election workers to fear for their lives.
Richard Barron, the elections director of Fulton County, received over a hundred such messages in one week. “We're coming after you and every motherfucker that stole this election with our Second Amendment, subpoenas be damned,” a message stated. “You're going to be served lead, you fucking enemy communist cocksucker.”
Tennessee resident John Johnson didn’t leave that message, though he left others like it. Johnson was convinced by Trump that the election had been stolen in Georgia. He had watched a live feed of Fulton County election workers and spent weeks following the conspiracy. He called Barron with a warning: “We’re watching, Rick.”
When VICE News asked him why he left these messages, he remained resolute and without remorse. “I think I'm like every American that watched elections get decided the night of, and then I watched Georgia and a few other key swing states turn into a month-long, dragged out, hiding of information,” said Johnson. “When you're a public servant, you've got to be ready to stand up to the scrutiny of people, whether you're a constituent or not.”
“Anybody that's threatened by what I’ve said, that is because you're only threatened because you're guilty,” Johnson added.
In the weeks and months after the 2020 election, as Trump pushed his Big Lie conspiracy, right-wing news outlets like conspiracy-espousing media channel One America News Network and Newsmax followed the former president’s lead. They devoted primetime news reports to conspiracy theories about Trump’s loss. Central to these conspiracies were election officials who had overseen the ballot counting, like Barron.
Barron first started receiving death threats after Trump screened an OANN news report on a jumbotron at a Dec 5th rally in Valdosta, Georgia that mentioned Barron by name.
Derrick Risner claimed he got Barron’s number while watching a segment on OANN. “I was watching One American News and they put his phone number on there and they said, ‘Give the man a call,” Risner told VICE News.
Risner called Barron on December 31, 2020. “Either you're blind or you’re crooked as fuck,” Risner said over voicemail. “So figure it out buddy cause which side you gonna be on when the shooting starts brother?”
When VICE News called Risner, the Indiana resident said he did not regret making that call, and that he was not making a direct threat towards Barron or his employees.
“I stand what I stand behind what I said,” added Risner. “Ultimately, you know, if you can sit right now in this country today and say that all of that was legal…I don't know.” He cited OANN as a major inspiration for his beliefs: “I watch One American News. It's on in the background as we speak,” he told VICE News. “I was never really a Trump supporter. But ultimately, they've turned me into one.”
Both Johnson and Risner declined requests to be interviewed on camera. Risner specifically cited his concern that an in person interview would jeopardize his personal safety. When Johnson was asked if it was acceptable to call people and threaten them about their jobs, he said, “If that's the way you spin it, then you are a communist piece of garbage and you can put that on the record.”
Their threats and the threats of others have led election workers to quit. After eight years as elections director, Barron resigned from his position in November, citing threats to his personal safety. “I think at some point the law enforcement needs to step in and stop the harassment of public workers,” Barron told VICE News. “At some point I have to think about myself and how it affects my personal life … One of the things that I started finding is that little things were stressing me out in ways they hadn't ever before. It was almost like PTSD.”
Barron is not alone in his resignation. A third of Pennsylvania’s county elections have left in the last year and a half, the AP reported. In Wisconsin, more than two-dozen clerks have retired since the presidential election and more retirements are expected at the end of this year. One survey found that up to a quarter of election officials are considering retiring early, ahead of the 2024 election.
While some phone calls from others expressed concern over the recounting of ballots, many were more explicit.
Messages left by others threatened to cross into physical violence. In one email, an election worker was told that someone was coming to “kill all government workers … and he was coming to kill me.”
Some people who worked in the elections warehouse reported drones flying over the warehouse where they worked, surveilling their activities. Some reported being followed as they drove home from work, leading some election workers to replace their licence plates with new ones. One staffer was harassed at their home by Kayne West’s publicist, who demanded that they come clean about alleged voter fraud at the Fulton County warehouse.
In Georgia, it’s illegal to threaten bodily harm against someone. It’s also a federal crime to threaten someone online, by phone, email or engage in stalking. But VICE News found that the police department in Fulton County had not opened any investigations into the threats—including messages that repeatedly called for the explicit killing of election officials or their family members. Only one person has been federally indicted for threatening a Georgia election official. Across the country, only a handful of threats made against election officials have led to any arrests, according to a Reuters investigation.
When VICE News submitted a FOIA to the Fulton County Police Department requesting documentation related to any investigations the department opened into death threats against Fulton County Election workers, VICE News was told there were no related records, because the police department has not opened investigations into any of the threats.
In a statement to VICE News, FCPD said “While many of these comments were upsetting, they did not rise to the level of a threat from a legal perspective.”
Mary McCord, a professor at Georgetown Law School and former acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice, told VICE News this isn’t surprising: “Every state criminally prohibits threats to do bodily harm,” said McCord. “But law enforcement might be reluctant to bring these cases if prosecutors have rejected them in the past.”
This doesn’t make people like Barron more inclined to remain in the elections space.
“If there are no consequences, they're going to keep doing it, you know? And so I think it just encourages them and enables them,” said Barron. “So in 2024, people that heard from no one- people who made these calls, they're going to feel emboldened to do it again.”