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Crackdown on threats to election officials won’t relent

Crackdown on threats to election officials won’t relent
Just as another election season gets into full swing, the Justice Department is vowing not to relent in its crackdown on a wave of threats unleashed against voting administrators and other public officials over the past two election cycles.

About 20 such prosecutions have been brought since DOJ formed an Election Threats Task Force in June 2021, with many of the defendants receiving substantial prison time, prosecutors said.

Seven of the cases involve threats to officials in Arizona, where a senior Justice Department official along with the top federal prosecutor and FBI agent in the state gathered Monday to announce another tough sentence that they hope will deter others from trying to intimidate election workers.

“Death threats are not debate. Death threats do not contribute to the marketplace of ideas. Death threats are not First Amendment protected speech,” DOJ official John Keller told reporters at a press conference in Phoenix. “Death threats and any threats of violence are condemnable criminal acts, and they will be met with the full force of the Department of Justice.”

“There is no constitutional right to vigilantism,” U.S. Attorney Gary Restaino declared. “Let these cases be a lesson not to take or attempt to take the rule of law into one’s own hands.”

The prosecutors spoke shortly after U.S. District Judge Steven Logan sentenced an Ohio man, Joshua Russell, 46, to two and a half years in prison after he pleaded guilty to making threats against then-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in connection with the 2022 election.

“You have a few short months to see yourself behind bars, or we will see you to the grave. You are a traitor to this nation,” Russell said in one voicemail message for Hobbs, a Democrat who was elected governor in November 2022.

“You just signed your own death warrant. Get your affairs in order, cause, your days are very short,” Russell said in another message left a week after the November election.

The sentence imposed by Logan, an appointee of President Barack Obama, was the same one prosecutors had requested. Russell’s attorneys, who said he’d been suffering from substance abuse problems, had asked for probation.

Even as officials touted their efforts Monday, Keller acknowledged that “the vast majority” of the disturbing and intimidating messages reported to the Justice Department can’t be prosecuted because they don’t appear to meet the Supreme Court’s standards for a so-called “true threat.”

Restaino attributed many of the threat cases to “election denialists” and to political rhetoric encouraging suspicion about election outcomes and activities. He also said many of the threats have involved claims that an official will be executed for treason.

Restaino, an appointee of President Joe Biden, made no mention of former President Donald Trump’s continued denial of his loss in the 2020 presidential election or his suggestion that former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley had committed treason and might deserve to be executed.

Restaino said Arizona, as a battleground state, is a hot spot for such threats.

Sentences in the cases pursued by the task force have ranged from 30 days to three and a half years, according to the Justice Department.

One of the cases, against a Nevada man accused of making threatening calls to the secretary of state’s office there one day after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, ended in acquittal. After a three-day trial last May, a jury found Gjergi Juncaj of Las Vegas not guilty of four counts of making threatening phone calls for repeatedly telling officials that they were “going to die.”

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