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Arizona becomes ground zero for 2024 election misinformation fears

LawArizona becomes ground zero for 2024 election misinformation fears

Law enforcement officials are taking steps to put up guardrails ahead of the 2024 elections, where long-festering misinformation from 2020 is expected to heighten tensions — especially in the battleground state of Arizona.  

Election workers and public officials in Arizona have been plagued by incessant threats and harassment, while candidates with a penchant for conspiracy theories have made the state a hotbed of misinformation. 

U.S. Attorney Gary Restaino, Arizona’s top federal prosecutor, said Monday that threats against election officials in the swing state make up more than one-third of all cases tied to federal election threats nationwide — and an even greater number of threats aren’t prosecuted. 

With a rematch between former President Trump and President Biden all but inevitable, election officials and experts warn that the 2024 elections could brew a similarly perfect storm. 

“We don’t really want to be a leader in this space,” Restaino said at a press conference. “But we are, and we’re out there engaging.” 

The 2020 presidential race in Arizona was one of the nation’s tightest, with Biden prevailing against Trump by just more than 10,000 votes. The slim margin spurred an onslaught of misinformation amplified by Trump and other prominent Republicans.  

Arizona was one of seven states where slates of “alternate electors” convened and claimed without basis that they were “duly elected” electors. The hope was that then-Vice President Mike Pence would recognize those Trump-supporting electors instead of the true electoral votes cast for Biden.  

The Arizona attorney general’s investigation into the fake electors scheme is ongoing, according to a spokesperson. The office declined to comment on its timeline. 

Election denialism was also a big theme in the 2022 gubernatorial contest between Republican Kari Lake, the ex-newscaster and Trump ally, and then-Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. Lake argued the election was stolen from Trump, and then argued she was the victim of a stolen election when she lost to Hobbs by about 17,000 votes.

Hobbs — who ran the office overseeing the election — staunchly defended the accuracy of the count.

Lake is running for the Senate in 2024, while Trump is the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. 

“With those campaigns ongoing, these narratives just could never disappear,” said Katherine Keneally, director of threat analysis and prevention for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s U.S. branch, of election denialism.

Election workers and public officials are at an increased risk of threats given the lasting perception of election fraud in the state.

So far, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has levied 20 prosecutions for threatening the election community, and seven of those involved Arizona officials, Restaino said Monday. Most threats have come from “outsiders” in other states.

“Of all of the swing states … Arizona, in particular, has sustained this sort of attention since 2020,” Keneally said. “I find it really unsurprising that many of these threats that the DOJ has been prosecuting are of individuals who are in Arizona — by individuals who aren’t even in the state.” 

“Focus on the election never went away,” she added. 

An Ohio man was sentenced Monday to 2 1/2 years in prison for sending death threats to Hobbs during the state’s 2022 primary and general elections. 

Earlier this month, a Massachusetts man was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for making an online threat to bomb Hobbs’s election office in February 2021. 

And an Iowa man this summer was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for making separate election-related threats to two Arizona elected officials. He reported to prison Monday. 

“We expect that we are going to remain in the crosshairs, so to speak, of these threats given that Arizona will remain a battleground state,” Restaino said. “And so we’ll continue to be vigilant on that.”  

Threats against public officials are notoriously challenging to prosecute, given the thin line between threats and protected speech.  

The “vast majority” of threats reported to the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force, which was formed in 2021 to respond to threats related to 2020 election denialism, don’t reach the legal threshold of a “true threat,” according to John Dixon Keller, head of the task force. 

“Because so much of the hostility does not cross the line into criminal threats, prosecution alone is not the answer,” he said. “We must do better as a society; the normalization of personal threats and attacks on government officials and their families is contributing to an election environment in which people are committing previously unthinkable crimes.” 

Threats against election workers and public officials are on the rise nationwide, causing an exodus from the profession.  

A 2022 Brennan Center poll found that 30 percent of officials polled knew one or more election workers who left their jobs in part because of fear for their safety. Some 60 percent of officials flagged concern that the threatening and harassment of election officials would make it difficult to recruit and retain workers. 

The officials Monday said the DOJ task force is regularly engaging with state and national election officials and following up on “every single actionable threat” to the election community. The FBI has run “scenario-based situations” practicing how to respond to election threats and considers election security as one of the agency’s “highest national security priorities.”  

Both agencies called on communities to help friends and neighbors from falling down the “rabbit hole of misinformation.”  

“In many ways, we say that this is deja vu — we have the same two candidates running; much of this feels very similar,” Keneally said. “But the difference this time is we have now had four years for these election denialist networks online to gain influence — to spread these beliefs.”

This deeper entrenchment of election denialism, in addition to foreign malign influence and the numerous global conflicts that have worsened since 2020, is ringing alarm bells as the 2024 elections creep nearer.  

“It’s creating a really volatile threat environment that I am not quite sure we are truly prepared for,” Keneally added. 

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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