US public officials face surge of threats ahead of 2024 election


Ever since former President Donald Trump contested the 2020 elections as a “stolen one” by Democrats, state and local officials have faced a surge of violent threats, harassment, and intimidation. Especially from his supporters following the infamous attack on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, when Trump lost the election to Joe Biden.

These threats, harassment and intimidation are virtually reshaping the way public officials across the US do their jobs, making them less likely to engage with constituents, hold public events, advocate for government policies that could lead to blowback, or run for re-election, the Time Magazine reported in a special dispatch this week.

Quoting a new report published on Thursday by the Brennan Center for Justice, the journal laid out how this abuse was interfering and affecting the efficiency of public officials.

More than 40 per cent of state legislators surveyed reported being threatened or attacked in the past three years. Nearly 90 per cent said they had suffered less severe abuse, including harassment, intimidation, and stalking.

Almost 40 per cent of local officials, including 50 per cent of women, said the ongoing harassment made them less willing to run for re-election or to seek higher office. This tally includes many state and local election officials, who in 2020 bore the brunt of the anger of Trump’s supporters, who falsely accused them of rigging that race and subsequently hounded many out of office, the journal said.

The resulting turnover means that more than 1 in 5 election administrators will be doing the job for the first time in 2024, according to the Brennan Centre’s data.

“We never thought our lives, or most importantly, our family members’ or significant others’ lives, would be in jeopardy,” former Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat, said in the Brennan Center survey. “I think you’re going to lose a lot of good people because of it.”

Public officials have of late faced some level of anger from constituents who disagree with them. And this disagreement and the severity and scale of this “constant barrage of intimidating behaviour is now [having] an impact on the way they do their jobs,” Gowri Ramachandran, the Deputy Director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center, told TIME.

“It’s made people less willing to lead and legislate on so-called ‘contentious issues’, and all of those things are having really severe impacts on the democratic system.”

The report is based on a series of national surveys conducted last year of more than 1,700 state legislators and local officials from all 50 states, as well as three dozen interviews with the Brennan Center. Approximately 1 in 5 state officials, and 40 per cent of local officials, said they were less willing to work on policies considered controversial, like gun regulation or reproductive rights, due to harassment. More than half of state lawmakers said they believed this atmosphere was deterring their colleagues from advocating for these issues, the report found.

“I’ve had people who believe in the abolition of abortion… make death threats against my family, my children, myself,” a Republican state legislator described as having “moderate views about abortion”.

“I’ve had people advocating to legalize marijuana make threats. It’s constant. It comes from every direction,” he told the Brennan Center.

Republican legislators reported the incidence of “abuse” was higher with them than Democrats. The report’s authors partly attribute this to Republican officeholders being targeted by the party’s far-right “for refusing to back extreme positions”, paired with GOP leaders’ unwillingness to condemn violent rhetoric. This dynamic “likely distorts policymaking in ways that fail broad constituencies and makes nuanced, bipartisan law-making often impossible”, the report’s authors say.

Threats against officials advocating gun regulation have faced severe reactions in some cases. Illinois State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Democrat, said that she decided against spearheading bills on the topic because “my kids were too little, the threats were too common and too on point.” Several other officials mentioned feeling increasingly nervous while holding events or debates, even in government buildings.

“Sometimes we’re on the legislative floor, and in the galleries above us there are people who are armed,” Texas State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, a Democrat, said in her survey. “Especially when we’re having those controversial debates, I’m thinking, ‘God, one person. It just takes one person.’ We’re like sitting ducks.”

Such threats raise the spectre of violence with the upcoming election in 2024. High-profile acts of political violence, like the hammer attack on Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s husband, by a right-wing conspiracy theorist, have not only drawn public ire but also widespread attention.

Public officials have reported receiving bomb threats and letters with suspicious substances, being confronted with guns, having their homes shot at, and seeing their addresses and photos of their homes and their children’s schools posted online.

The abuse has often been more severe and directed at officials who were women, people of color, religious minorities, or LGBTQ community. One female state legislator told the Brennan Center it had become common to see people making online threats of rape or death “identifying my address or talking about my daughter or my mom”.

Another female legislator said those targeting her for her public role “don’t directly say, ‘I’m going to kill her children’. But they’ll make comments like, ‘We’re going to take over her home. Here’s the address. Here’s a photo of it. She lives here in [town], but her kids don’t go to school [in town] — they go in [neighbouring town]’.”

Female state officials, especially women of colour, reported they were nearly twice as likely as men to change their travel routes due to safety concerns, and were six times as likely to avoid travelling alone, the Brennan report made a chilling revelation.

Some officials are spending their own money on extra safety precautions like security cameras to protect themselves, their staff, and their families. The rise in violent threats has also made others reconsider how much exposure is possible to their constituents without the risk of threats.

Threat assessments are becoming an ordinary routine and almost 1 in 4 officials surveyed said they were less likely to hold constituent events in public spaces due to safety concerns, while half of all officials said they were more reluctant to post and engage on social media.

Though the report offered some recommendations, like regulations for carrying of firearms in public places or at public or shielding officials’ home addresses, and more closely monitoring these threats to better allocate resources, experts warn these are just stopgap measures. A long-term measure for public safety has become increasingly imperative.

“I’m worried about the impact this will have on the pipeline of candidates for public office,” says Ramachandran, noting that the normalization of violent rhetoric directed towards public officials will continue to have a chilling effect. “Even before this kind of other behaviour escalates into physical violence, it does have this corrosive effect on our democracy.”

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