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“Hey, Rick,” the voicemail said. “Two hundred and thirty four years ago, the founding caucasian fathers of America gave us the Second Amendment. Time's running out, Richard. We're coming after you and every motherfucker that stole this election with our Second Amendment, subpoenas be damned, you're going to be served lead, you fucking enemy communist cocksucker. You will be served lead.”
This was just one of the nearly 150 voicemails that were left for Richard Barron, elections director of Georgia’s Fulton County, an area that includes Atlanta, during the week from Christmas to New Year’s Day 2021.
On Dec. 5, former President Donald Trump singled Barron out at a rally in Valdosta, Georgia. He showed a video of Barron to the hundreds of attendees, and voiced conspiracies about voter fraud in Georgia. “So, if you just take the crime of what those Democratic workers were doing,” said Trump, “that’s ten times more than I need to win the state.” When Barron appears on the screen, the audience begins to boo.
That’s when the voicemails started coming. Many of them were graphic and specifically called for his death. “Hey, Rick,” another said. “Watching this video of you on YouTube. I can't believe you can't count votes in Fulton County. It's absolutely incredible. How deceivious [sic]? How deceitful you are? You need to get your act together or people like me really may go after people like you.”
And again: “If you have a hand in this, you deserve to go to prison, you actually deserve to hang by your goddamn skinny-ass soyboy neck.”
Barron had been working in elections around the country for more than 20 years, but he’d never seen anything like this before. It wasn’t just Barron—his entire election staff became a target. “We started receiving lots of disturbing phone calls,” Barron told VICE News. “My staff is almost exclusively African American, and they started receiving calls laced with racial slurs.”
Physical threats began as well. “We also began to see people just across the street from the warehouse where we are now,” Barron added. “They started to do surveillance on my staff, taking pictures of all of the individuals that would come in and go in and out of the warehouse, they would take pictures of their license plates.”
Months after the election, Barron continued to receive threats. His situation, unfortunately, is not unique.
VICE News spoke with over a dozen election officials who had experienced death threats and felt endangered during the 2020 election period. Officials across the United States experienced physical stalking, explicitly violent phone calls, racial slurs, home surveillance, bomb scares, and threats of mass shootings. For some officials in Georgia and Pennsylvania, the threats have continued for nearly a year. And now, many of these officials want to quit.
“They started to do surveillance on my staff, taking pictures of all of the individuals that would come in and go in and out of the warehouse, they would take pictures of their license plates.”
The stories of these officials represent a small proportion of the number of threats made in this election cycle, though the total number is unknown because many of the threats went unrecorded and unanswered by law enforcement, Reuters reported. However, in a survey published in June by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, one-third of election workers report feeling unsafe.
In election hotspots like Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, many of these threats came directly after Trump mentioned election workers (like Barron) at events and in tweets.
In Pennsylvania, City Commissioner Al Schmidt was forced to leave his home and lived under 24-hour police protection after a slew of threats targeted his children by name and included photos of his home.
Like Barron, Schmidt had also been called out by President Trump in a tweet that accused Schmidt, a Republican, as being a “RINO,” or “Republican in name only.” At that point, votes in Philadelphia were still being counted. Trump also stated that Schmidt “refused to look at corruption & dishonesty.”
“Not long after the former president tweeted at me, I received the first specific threat to my phone, to my personal number on my phone,” Schmidt told VICE News. The details included in the voicemail were terrifying: “You lied, you're a traitor. Perhaps cuts and bullets will soon arrive.” The voicemail named members of his family, gave his address, called him a “RINO,” and said he stole the election.
Schmidt’s wife also started receiving threats in her work email, some describing physical harm to their two young kids and including a photo of their home.
“The first email that my wife received with the subject line, ‘Albert RINO Schmidt, committed treason,’” Schmidt said. It continued: “‘Your husband should tell the truth, or your three kids … will be fatally shot.” The email went on to mention their children’s ages and their address, and said that the cops couldn’t help them. The email was also signed “Q,” in likely reference to QAnon. Then, the email included a link to a picture of their home.
The Schmidt family had 24-hour-a-day police protection and were forced to leave their home for several weeks. Months after returning home, the impact of the threats still lingers.
“It certainly changed the way I look at this job,” said Schmidt. “I won't be running for reelection again a couple of years from now. I had made that decision before any of this. But having gone through it, I think it's confirmed that it's the right decision.”
“‘Your husband should tell the truth or your three kids … will be fatally shot.”
Outside of Atlanta and Philadelphia, officials were also receiving threats. An administrator in Scott County, Iowa, received a phone call where the speaker threatened to burn down the elections building. In Paulding County, Georgia, the director of elections received an email that said, “We'll make the Boston bombings look like child's play at the poll sites in this county .... Detonations will occur at every polling site set up in this county. No one at these places will be spared.”
And it’s not just physical intimidation. Election workers across the country are facing a new kind of threat: state laws that criminalize election officials if they make a mistake on the job.
In Iowa, Senate File 413, passed in February, limits the autonomy of election officials to run elections in their counties. It also adds new felony punishments for infringement of the new law and imposes a fine of up to $10,000 for “technical infractions.”
Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Alabama have followed Iowa’s lead and also passed laws that impose harsh penalties on election workers. In Florida, an election worker can be fined up to $25,000 for failing to monitor a drop box. Republican state legislatures have introduced a similar bill in Michigan, and other states are expected to do the same.
Laws like Iowa’s can have a chilling effect on election officials. Roxanna Moritz, who has worked as an elections auditor in Scott County, Iowa for 14 years, said the passage of this law pushed her into early retirement.
“When I heard about Senate File 413, it was the determining factor that I was going to retire from my position or resign from my position,” said Moritz.
“You can probably name them the half a dozen or dozen or two dozen people across the country who, if they hadn't done their jobs, this whole thing of ours, this whole system of government could have fallen apart.”
“I'm capable of taking quite a bit. But 2020 was a little too much for me and my office,” she added. “And the criminalization of what might be a mistake just really cemented it for me.”
Aside from the loss of institutional knowledge, election officials are concerned about who takes their jobs once they leave. 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.
“I think we're at a dangerous spot, not only because so many election administrators will likely be leaving after this last presidential election, but who could potentially be filling their places? said Schmidt. “You can probably name them, the half a dozen or dozen or two dozen people across the country who, if they hadn't done their jobs, this whole thing of ours, this whole system of government, could have fallen apart.”