One charged, another sentenced for threatening election officials

A Nebraska man was sentenced to 18 months in prison Thursday for online threats he made to the Colorado secretary of state, while in a separate action an Iowa man was arrested for threatening an official on the Maricopa County, Ariz., Board of Supervisors.

The two cases were brought by the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force, which was set up last year “to ensure that all election workers are able to do their jobs free of harassment and intimidation.”

They reflect what watchdogs and public officials have described as the increasingly hostile atmosphere that emerged following the 2020 election and in advance of next month’s midterm elections.

Travis Ford, of Lincoln, was sentenced after pleading guilty to sending threats to Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat. The case was the first guilty plea obtained by the new federal task force. Prosecutors alleged that Ford made violent threats multiple times via an Instagram account.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Ford’s prison sentence “makes clear that those who illegally threaten election workers should be prepared to face meaningful penalties.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the case shows the determination of the Justice Department to go after those who issue threats to election workers. “Make no mistake, threatening election officials is a serious attack on our democratic process,” Wray said. “Today’s sentence proves that the FBI and our partners will stand up to anyone who attempts to intimidate election workers for doing their jobs.”

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The man charged with threats in Arizona was identified Thursday as Mark A. Rissi, 64, of Hiawatha, Iowa. He allegedly left a voice mail for Clint Hickman, chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, as an Arizona ballot review — ordered by the Republican-majority state Senate was coming to close.

“You’re gonna die, you piece of [expletive]. We’re going to hang you. We’re going to hang you,” the indictment said.

Hickman’s experiences were chronicled as part of The Washington Post’s three-part series on the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol, which described how threats levied against local election administrators only grew after the violence in Washington.

In an interview Thursday, Hickman, 57, expressed gratitude that an arrest had been made — but said more action was needed.

As board chairman during the 2020 election, Hickman resisted efforts by allies of President Donald Trump to prevent certification of the results in the county that helped deliver Trump’s loss.In the days, months and years that followed, Hickman said, he and his colleagues on the board, along with county elections officials, have been flooded with threatening voice mails, emails and social media posts from Trump supporters.

Hickman said he met with two FBI agents and a Justice Department attorney on July 20, and recognized the chilling voice-mail message they cited in the case.

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“The wheels of justice turn awfully slow, including when there’s quite possibly actionable threats to not just me, but to my family, to our co-workers, my colleagues, the recorder, and election staff, people that are just trying to do a job,” he said. “This has been going on a long time, and I know that there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of election officials that have received calls like this.”

“I’m gratified that something is finally happening,” Hickman said. But he called for leaders in Arizona and elsewhere to speak out against the increasing threats.

In August, Justice Department officials told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that they had reviewed more than 1,000 hostile threats against election workers over the past year, leading to federal charges in five cases and one conviction.

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, who leads the task force, said at the time that the problem was becoming increasingly rampant across the country. He detailed graphically violent threats that have targeted election officials in Nevada, Michigan, Arizona and other states.

Sanchez reported from Phoenix. Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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