In US crackdown, Ohio man gets prison for threatening Arizona election official

By Thomson Reuters Mar 25, 2024 | 5:02 PM

By Andrew Goudsward

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A man was sentenced on Monday to two and a half years in prison for harassing an Arizona election official, part of an effort by federal prosecutors to crack down on threats to public officials ahead of the November election.

Joshua Russell, an Ohio resident who pleaded guilty to making an interstate threatening communication, left three threatening voicemails in 2022 for the office of then-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat now serving as the state’s governor, according to Justice Department officials.

“You are a terrorist. You are a derelict criminal. And you have a few short months to see yourself behind bars, or we will see you to the grave,” Russell said in one message, according to court documents.

Justice Department officials touted the case as they condemned threats against election workers, who have been subjected to a torrent of threats in recent years largely tied to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen through widespread voter fraud.

“This group of Arizona election officials, like election officials across the country, have faced an onslaught of unfounded hostility for nothing more than dutifully and reliably doing their jobs,” John Keller, the head of a Justice Department task force focused on election threats, said during a news conference. “Attacks on these officials are attacks on the very foundation of our democracy: our elections.”

Arizona was one of the most competitive states in the 2020 election and is expected to be a top battleground this year as well, when Trump is seeking to win back the White House from incumbent Democrat Joe Biden.

Russell’s is one of seven criminal cases involving threats to election officials in Arizona and one of roughly 20 cases brought by the Justice Department’s task force, officials said.

Lawyers for Russell asked for a term of probation, arguing in a court filing that he did not intend to follow through on the threats.

The Justice Department has faced criticism for its response to attacks on election workers. Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, told Rolling Stone magazine in January that the agency was being “far too cautious” on the issue.

Department officials said on Monday that criminal cases for threatening rhetoric are often difficult because of broad protections for free speech in the U.S. Constitution. Keller said the “vast majority” of tips to the department’s election task force do not violate the law and cannot be prosecuted.

“Prosecution alone is not the answer,” Keller said. “We must do better as a society.”

(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward; Editing by Andy Sullivan and David Gregorio)