Note: This story contains offensive language
Late on the night of April 24, the wife of Georgia’s top election official got a chilling text message: “You and your family will be killed very slowly.”
A week earlier, Tricia Raffensperger, wife of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, had received another anonymous text: “We plan for the death of you and your family every day.”
That followed an April 5 text warning. A family member, the texter told her, was “going to have a very unfortunate incident.”
Those messages, which have not been previously reported, illustrate the continuing barrage of threats and intimidation against election officials and their families months after former U.S. President Donald Trump’s November election defeat. While reports of threats against Georgia officials emerged in the heated weeks after the voting, Reuters interviews with more than a dozen election workers and top officials – and a review of disturbing texts, voicemails and emails that they and their families received – reveal the previously hidden breadth and severity of the menacing tactics.
Trump’s relentless false claims that the vote was “rigged” against him sparked a campaign to terrorize election officials nationwide – from senior officials such as Raffensperger to the lowest-level local election workers. The intimidation has been particularly severe in Georgia, where Raffensperger and other Republican election officials refuted Trump’s stolen-election claims. The ongoing harassment could have far-reaching implications for future elections by making the already difficult task of recruiting staff and poll workers much harder, election officials say.
In an exclusive interview, Tricia Raffensperger spoke publicly for the first time about the threats of violence to her family and shared the menacing text messages with Reuters.
The Raffenspergers – Tricia, 65, and Brad, 66 – began receiving death threats almost immediately after Trump’s surprise loss in Georgia, long a Republican bastion. Tricia Raffensperger started taking precautions. She canceled regular weekly visits in her home with two grandchildren, ages 3 and 5 – the children of her eldest son, Brenton, who died from a drug overdose in 2018.
“I couldn’t have them come to my house anymore,” she said. “You don’t know if these people are actually going to act on this stuff.”
In late November, the family went into hiding for nearly a week after intruders broke into the home of the Raffenspergers’ widowed daughter-in-law, an incident the family believed was intended to intimidate them. That evening, people who identified themselves to police as Oath Keepers – a far-right militia group that has supported Trump’s bid to overturn the election – were found outside the Raffenspergers’ home, according to Tricia Raffensperger and two sources with direct knowledge of the family’s ordeal. Neither incident has been previously reported.
“Brad and I didn’t feel like we could protect ourselves,” she said, explaining the decision to flee their home.
Brad Raffensperger told Reuters in a statement that “vitriol and threats are an unfortunate, but expected, part of public service. But my family should be left alone.”
Trump’s baseless voter-fraud accusations have had dark consequences for U.S. election leaders and workers, especially in contested states such as Georgia, Arizona and Michigan.Some have faced protests at their homes or been followed in their cars. Many have received death threats.
Some, like Raffensperger, are senior officials who publicly refused to bow to Trump’s demands to alter the election outcome. In Georgia, people went into hiding in at least three cases, including the Raffenspergers. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, told Reuters she continues to receive death threats. Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson – a Democrat who faced armed protesters outside her home in December – is also still getting threats, her spokesperson said, declining to elaborate.
But many others whose lives have been threatenedwere low- or mid-level workers, just doing their jobs. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric could reverberate into the 2022 midterm congressional elections and the 2024 presidential vote by making election workers targets of threatened or actual violence. Many election offices will lose critical employees with years or decades of experience, predicts David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research.
“This is deeply troubling,” Becker said.
Carlos Nelson, elections supervisor for Ware County in southeastern Georgia, shares that fear. “These are people who work for little or no money, 12 to 14 hours a day on Election Day,” Nelson said. “If we lose good poll workers, that’s when we’re going to lose democracy.”
In Georgia, Trump faces an investigation into alleged election interference, the only known criminal inquiry into his attempts to overturn the 2020 vote.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller did not respond to Reuters’ questions about the ongoing harassment of election workers, including why Trump has not forcefully denounced the torrent of threats being made in his name.
‘Disturbing and sickening’
The intimidation in Georgia has gone well beyond Raffensperger and his family. Election workers - from local volunteers to senior administrators - continue enduring regular harassing phone calls and emails, according to interviews with election workers and the Reuters review of texts, emails and audio files provided by Georgia officials.
One email, sent on Jan. 2 to officials in nearly a dozen counties, threatened to bomb polling sites: “No one at these places will be spared unless and until Trump is guaranteed to be POTUS again.” The specific text of the threat has not been previously reported. The email, a state election official said, was forwarded to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which declined to comment for this story.
In Georgia, threatening violence against a poll officer is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000. Making death threats is a separate crime carrying up to five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Criminal law specialists say the widespread threats could increase the legal jeopardy for Trump in the Georgia investigation. That inquiry is led by the top prosecutor in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta. District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat, is probing whether Trump illegally interfered with Georgia’s 2020 election.
Among other matters, investigators are examining a Jan. 2 call in which Trump urged Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn his Georgia loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Willis said in a Feb. 10 letterthat her office would also investigate “any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration.”
That statement suggests Willis may be examining whether Trump, or others acting with him, solicited or encouraged death threats against election officials, said Clark Cunningham, a Georgia State University law professor. Such intimidation could fit into a possible racketeering probe into Trump if the threats were part of a coordinated effort to overturn the election, said Clint Rucker, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney and former Fulton County prosecutor.
Since launching her inquiry in February, Willis has added several high-profile attorneys to her team, including a leading racketeering expert, to assist on cases including the Trump probe, Reuters reported on March 6.
“I think there’s going to be a big-picture look at all of it,” said Rucker, a Democrat, who once prosecuted a high-profile racketeering case with Willis.
Fulton County District Attorney spokesman Jeff DiSantis did not respond to requests for comment on the office’s inquiries into election-related threats of violence.
In April, two investigators from Willis’ office met with Fulton County’s elections director, Richard Barron, who oversaw elections in a region that overwhelmingly backed Biden for president. Trump frequently targeted the county, claiming without evidence that election workers there destroyed hundreds of thousands of ballots.
During the hour-long meeting, which has not been previously reported, investigators sought information on threats against Barron and his staff, Barron said. Barron’s office had saved every harassing message – hundreds of them – and shared them with investigators.
Barron said his staff is made up almost entirely of Black election workers. “The racial slurs were disturbing and sickening,” he said of the threats.
‘You deserve to hang’
Among those targeted was Barron’s registration chief, Ralph Jones, 56, who oversaw the county’s mail-in ballot operation and has worked on Georgia elections for more than three decades, including senior roles.
Jones said callers left him death threats, including one shortly after the November election who called him a “n-----” who should be shot. Another threatened to kill him by dragging his body around with a truck. “It was unbelievable: your life being threatened just because you’re doing your job,” he said.
“It was unbelievable: your life being threatened just because you’re doing your job.”
Jones, born and raised in Atlanta, said he had experienced racism – but nothing like this. He recalled how one night after the election, strangers showed up at his house. They identified themselves as new neighbors, he said. Jones knew no one had moved into the neighborhood and didn’t open the door. After that, he told his wife each morning to lock the door before he went to work. “My primary focus was to make sure that no harm came to my family and staff,” he said.
His boss, Barron, who is white, faced even more intimidation. At a Dec. 5 rally – ahead of a runoff election in Georgia that would determine control of the U.S. Senate – Trump showed a video clip of Barron and accused him and his staff of committing a “crime,” alleging they tampered with ballots. After the rally, Barron was bombarded with threats. “I underestimated how hard he was going to push that narrative and just keep pushing it,” Barron said of Trump.
Between Christmas and early January, Barron received nearly 150 hateful calls, many accusing him of treason or saying he should die, according to Barron and a Reuters review of some of the phone messages.
“You actually deserve to hang by your goddamn, soy boy, skinny-ass neck,”said a woman in one voicemail, using a slang term for an effeminate man. Another caller wanted him banished to China: “That’s where you belong, in communist China, because you’re a crook.”
Police were posted outside Barron’s house and office after he received a detailed threat in late December in which the caller said he would kill Barron by firing squad.
“It seemed like we were descending into this third-world mentality,” said Barron, 54, who has worked in elections for 22 years and volunteered as an election observer overseas. “I never expected that out of this country.”
“It seemed like we were descending into this third-world mentality. I never expected that out of this country.”
Barron’s office is bracing for more abuse during an upcoming audit of the county’s 147,000 absentee ballots cast in November. A judge on May 21 ordered the review, granting a request by plaintiffs claiming fraud in Fulton County. The details of the review are still being litigated, but it may be supervised by Barron’s office. It won’t change the results, which were certified months ago. But it reflects the lasting impact of Trump’s election falsehoods.
Fulton County recently sought a dismissal of the case. Trump responded in a May 28 statement with more baseless allegations of a conspiracy to steal the election, saying county officials are fighting the review “because they know the vote was corrupt and the audit will show it.”
Trump’s disinformation campaign also shook election workers in Paulding County, outside Atlanta. Deidre Holden, the county elections director, was finishing preparations ahead of Georgia’s January Senate runoffs when an email caught her eye. The subject line read: “F_UCKING HEAR THIS PAULDING COUNTY OR D!E.”
The message, reviewed by Reuters, threatened to blow up all of the county’s polling sites. At least 10 other counties received the same email. “We’ll make the Boston bombings look like child’s play,” the message said in an apparent reference to the 2013 extremist attack on the Boston Marathon that killed three and injured hundreds.
“This sh_t is rigged,” the email said. “Until Trump is guaranteed to be POTUS until 2024 like he should be, we will bring death and destruction to defend this country if needed and get our voices heard.”
Holden forwarded the message to local police and contacted the state elections director in Raffensperger’s office. Officials at the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were also alerted. “I’ve never had to deal with anything like this,” said Holden, who’s served as elections supervisor for 14 years. “It was frightening.”
As Georgia girds for elections in 2022 – including votes for governor and the secretary of state – election supervisors say they fear high numbers of the temporary workers who staff polling sites won’t return for future votes because they want to avoid harassment.
Vanessa Montgomery, 58, is among those who may not come back. In the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs for two U.S. Senate seats, Montgomery was a polling manager in the city of Taylorsville. The stakes were huge: Both seats were won by Democrats, giving the party control of the Senate.
When polls closed that night, she set off to deliver ballots to an elections office in Bartow County, a predominantly white, Republican district in northwestern Georgia. Montgomery, who is Black, was traveling with her daughter, also a poll worker hired temporarily for the election.
On a dark, rural two-lane road, they noticed they were being followed by an SUV.
“I was trying to stay calm because I wanted to make sure we both were safe,” she recalled in an interview. “What were they trying to do, actually? Were they trying to hit us and take the information and destroy the ballots?”
Montgomery called 911 as her daughter sped towards town with the SUV nearly running them off the road, she said. They were followed for about 25 minutes. The dispatcher helped guide them to a parking lot, where officers met and escorted them to the election office. She declined to file a police report, and the incident was not investigated.
She said the scare triggered a panic attack, her first since serving as a U.S. Army officer decades ago in Bosnia, where she witnessed people killed by exploding landmines. Months later, Montgomery says she still suffers panic attacks from the incident and may stop working elections altogether.
Her manager, Joseph Kirk, the Bartow County elections supervisor, said Montgomery is one of his most reliable poll workers. Kirk now worries that the ugly reaction to Trump’s loss will make it harder to retain and hire the staff needed to run elections smoothly across America.
“I’m very concerned, after what we saw last year, we’re going to lose a lot of institutional knowledge nationwide,” he said.
Threats of murder
For Georgia’s top election officials, the intimidation has been especially personal and pointed.
In early May, Gabriel Sterling’s phone buzzed at 2:36 a.m. Five months had passed since the Georgia election office that he helpsto lead had declared Biden the winner. The caller ranted that Sterling, the chief operating officer for Secretary of State Raffensperger, should go to prison for “rigging” the election against Trump.
“This stuff has continued,” said Sterling, 50, a Republican who drew national attention in December by denouncing Trump’s voter-fraud claims as false and dangerous. “It’s continued for all of us.”
Raffensperger’s deputy, Jordan Fuchs, says she has faced frequent death threats since November. Her personal and work cell phone numbers have been posted online by a Trump supporter who encourages people to harass her, she said. In April, she received a vulgar photo of a male body part.
“I don’t think any of us anticipated this level of nastiness,” said Fuchs, 31, who grew up in a conservative Christian family and has worked for years to help elect Republicans.
In an interview, she said the most alarming threats came in late November when Trump called Raffensperger an “enemy of the people.” Death threats started pouring in, some calling for public hangings. Some of the threats were so detailed, the FBI began monitoring a list of people who were suspected of making them, said a source with direct knowledge of the matter.
In mid-December, a website titled “Enemies of the People” appeared online, posting the personal information of Raffensperger, Fuchs and Sterling, including home addresses. Crosshairs were superimposed over their photos. The FBI on Dec. 23 linked the website to Iran, citing “highly credible information indicating Iranian cyber actors” were responsible for the site. A spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations called the FBI’s claim “baseless” and “politically motivated.”
Police parked an empty cruiser outside Sterling’s house to deter attackers, Sterling said. Fuchs said she stayed at friends’ houses as a precaution.
Sterling publicly rebuked Trump, pleading with the former president to stop attacking Georgia’s election process. “Someone’s going to get killed,” he said as he gripped the podium during an emotional Dec. 1 news conference.
A month later, five people died and more than a hundred police officers were injured when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, demanding that Congress overturn the election.
The threats against Raffensperger and his family began right after the election.
Tricia Raffensperger detailed one that came from a sender who created a phony email address using her husband’s name to make the text message appear like it came from him.
“I married a sickening whore. I wish you were dead,” it read. Another text called her a “bitch” and included vulgar sexual insults. Raffensperger’s family and staff viewed the messages as an effort to coerce him to resign.
At the time, Georgia’s two Republican U.S. senators had called on Raffensperger to step down, criticizing his management of the elections as an “embarrassment” as the vote count showed Trump narrowly trailing Biden in Georgia.
Raffensperger’s refusal to overturn the 2020 results has left him ostracized by fellow Republicans. As Raffensperger seeks re-election next year as secretary of state, Trump has endorsed his Republican challenger, U.S. Congressman Jody Hice, who has supported Trump’s baseless fraud claims.
Hice’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the threats against Georgia election officials and the reason he backs Trump’s false fraud allegations.
The threats worsened in late November, Tricia Raffensperger said, after unidentified people broke into the home of her daughter-in-law – the widow of the Raffenspergers’ dead son. The daughter-in-law returned home with her children to find the lights on, the garage door pulled up, and the door to the house open.
“Items in the house had been moved around, but nothing was taken,” said a report on the break-in from the Suwanee Police Department.
In response to the threats, the Georgia State Patrol assigned a security detail to the Raffenspergers. One officer was parked in their driveway. The other followed the secretary of state wherever he went.
Later that evening, as Brad Raffensperger left to get dinner for the family, he and his state police guard spotted three cars with out-of-state license plates in front of the family’s home in an Atlanta suburb. The officer guarding the house confronted the people and asked them to identify themselves, Tricia Raffensperger said.
The strangers said they were members of the Oath Keepers, the militia group. They gave the officer what the Raffenspergers considered a nonsensical reason for being there – to protect the area from Black Lives Matter protesters they had heard would be there. The officer told them to leave, Tricia Raffensperger said, which they did.
A Georgia State Patrol spokesperson said no formal report was generated on the incident and no arrests were made while providing security for the Raffenspergers.
The break-in and encounter with the far-right extremists prompted the Raffenspergers, their children and grandchildren to escape to a hotel in an undisclosed location, Tricia said. The family intended to stay away from home for more than a week, she said. They returned after four days, however, when a stranger at the hotel recognized her husband, making their effort to stay in hiding seem futile.
“He’s probably the only secretary of state that everybody knows,” Tricia Raffensperger said.
Her voice trembled as she described her continuing fears for her grandchildren and other relatives. “I hesitate to say this because I’m afraid someone might use it against me,” she said, referring to the death of her son, Brenton. “But, you know, I have lost a child, and I don’t ever want to go through that again.”
The United States has a decentralized election system with wide variations in the way voting is run state to state, or even within the same state.
The practical administration of an election – from registering voters to organizing local polling places and counting ballots – is typically handled by counties, cities and towns. This is often done through a body known as a board of elections or commission of elections. In some small jurisdictions, the operation may be run by a single person.
Polling places on Election Day are usually staffed by temporary, paid workers who answer questions, verify IDs and guide voters through the process of casting their vote. In November, for instance, more than 4,000 people worked at polling sites across Georgia’s FultonCounty, a region of about one million people. Several hundred were full-time county employees, but the rest were hired temporarily at a flat rate of between $235 to $405, depending on the position, to perform tasks such as check identification, according to the county.
In a 2017 report, the federal U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that 65% of jurisdictions across the country reported that it was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” in the 2016 election to recruit enough poll workers. The pandemic exacerbated that problem last year. To address it, some states such as Maryland opened fewer polling places.
State governments play other roles, setting election-related rules, such as mail-in ballot requirements, and making sure they’re followed. State election officials run voter registration databases, test and certify voting equipment, and sometimes buy voting machines used across their state.
Twenty-four states – from Georgia to California – have an elected secretary of state as the chief election official, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). In some states, the elected lieutenant governor is the chief election official. In others, the chief election official is appointed by the legislature or governor.
The federal government’s role has traditionally been minor but was expanded after the disputed 2000 presidential election to include setting standards for how elections are run. That includes, for instance, setting rules on the use of provisional ballots for people whose eligibility is questioned and advising states how to maintain voter registration databases. Other functions include providing money for voting equipment, helping states recruit poll workers and monitoring foreign interference.
Editor’s note: This sidebar story has been corrected to remove a reference to Delaware as the only state where the chief election official is not called the secretary of state. There are 10 states where the top election official has a different title.
Campaign of Fear
By Linda So
Photo editing: Corinne Perkins
Video: Linda So
Art direction: Troy Dunkley
Edited by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot