New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver testifies before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday, July 20, 2022 about threats against elections administrators. (Screenshot via the committee)
The threat to our elections, once directed by adversaries like Russia, is now coming from inside the country, according to testimony Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver gave to the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.
“For people who believe their government is corrupt and their leaders are not legitimate, threats of physical violence and acts of intimidation have, unfortunately, begun to seem like acceptable responses,” Toulouse Oliver told the committee. She said she has reported three threats against her to the FBI since the June primaries.
The hearing focused on threats against election officials around the country, largely motivated by conspiracy theories about 2020 results. The four witnesses who spoke before the committee — three former election officials including Toulouse Oliver and a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice — agreed the threats have greatly increased since the 2020 election.
Federal officials have looked into over 1,000 reports of threats against election officials since last year, and a recent poll by the Brennan Center for Justice found one in six election officials have experienced threats related to their job, with 77% reporting those threats are on the rise.
Threats after Otero County primary struggle
Toulouse Oliver said threats against her office spiked following June’s standoff over certification of the primary election results in Otero County.
“Especially since our June 2022 Primary Election, my office has experienced pointed threats serious enough to be referred to law enforcement,” Toulouse Oliver told the committee. “These threats came on the heels of my office’s effort to directly combat election misinformation through a new website, and shortly after a nationally publicized situation in Otero County, N.M., where the county commission — parroting much of the election misinformation we’re seeing across the country — initially refused to certify the Primary Election results.”
The Otero County Commission, acting on advice from far-right conspiracy theorists David and Erin Clements, voted 3-0 against certifying the election results in mid-June.
Following a request from Toulouse Oliver, the New Mexico Supreme Court ordered the commission to certify the results, and the commission reconvened days later, voting 2-1 to approve the results. The only no vote came from Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin, a convicted Capitol rioter.
Alex Curtas, a spokesperson for Toulouse Oliver’s office, said the harassment initially spiked following a YouTube video from far-right provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, himself convicted of illegal campaign contributions and later pardoned by former President Donald Trump. Earlier this year, D’Souza released a discredited propaganda film called “2000 Mules,” which asserted widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
In May, the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office launched a website aimed at countering false information about the election system, including information spread by D’Souza’s movie.
“Dinesh D’Souza was using his YouTube channel to make direct refutations of our fact-check, so we definitely noticed some things coming in,” Curtas said. “But then what really I think generated it was the national coverage we were getting for the Otero County situation.”
Toulouse Oliver wasn’t the only person targeted. Other employees of the office, including Curtas personally, were also harassed, he said.
It’s a new phenomena. Election administrators didn’t used to face things like this, Curtas said.
“It used to be sort of a sleepy, bureaucratic thing. And now because of how political it’s gotten, we’ve seen that uptick,” he said.
These days, staffers have signed up for a service that scrubs employees’ personal information, including addresses and phone numbers from the internet, he said.
Republican reps. spread conspiracies
Even as the committee heard from Toulouse Oliver and other witnesses about the increase in threats caused by conspiracy theories, some Republican members of the committee sought to use their platform to undermine confidence in the country’s elections, while blaming administrators themselves for voters’ lack of confidence.
U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) cited D’Souza’s film “2000 Mules” as evidence that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
“I believe stronger election laws that restore confidence in our election process will reduce the threats of violence towards election officials,” Clyde said. “It’s no secret that my Democrat colleagues have exploited these threats to justify a federal takeover of elections.”
Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas) compared the threats against elections officials to peaceful protests of Supreme Court Justices following their decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and posed a question to Toulouse Oliver.
“How does it make you feel to now see Supreme Court Justices being doxed, and groups encouraging people to go to restaurants and intimidate those individuals?” he challenged.
“Violence has no place in our democracy,” she responded.
Rep. Jefferson Van Drew, (R-New Jersey) called supposed security holes in Dominion Voting Systems machines — a frequent subject of conspiracy theories — “unacceptable,” and said “It’s no surprise that voters worry and wonder about the validity of voting.”
Rep. Clay Higgins (R-Louisiana) used Biblical language to cast doubt on election security, asserting that “We are failed and fallen since Adam and our elections are no exception to that.” He added “The real challenge right now is: how will our sovereign states present best models for dealing with the perception amongst the American citizenry that our elections lack integrity, that their votes won’t count… People are concerned. It was quite convenient, the pandemic, mail-in ballots.”
Some Republican members of the committee argued for restrictive voting standards, such as limitations on drop boxes and requiring voter ID for all voters. Since the 2020 election, Republican-led states have enacted 102 new laws imposing or increasing criminal penalties for voting-related activity. Those laws include a ban in Georgia on passing out food or water at polling locations, and a law in Arkansas that criminalizes the possession of more than four mail-in ballots.
Curtas, of Toulouse Oliver’s office, said it’s disingenuous for Republicans to point to lack of confidence in election systems as evidence of the need for change, when they themselves are causing the lack of confidence in election systems.
“This is what offends me so much when I hear conservative people say ‘Look at how much distrust there is in our elections,’” he said. “Yeah, they don’t trust our elections because they’ve been fed a steady diet of lies about our election systems for two years.”
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