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Letters with suspicious substances sent to election offices spur alarm

Local election offices in at least three states were sent letters containing fentanyl or other suspicious-looking substances, the authorities said on Thursday. The letters come at a time when election offices are seeing a growing array of threats and aggressive behavior that has followed baseless charges of election fraud in recent years.

The letters targeted election offices in Fulton County, Georgia, which includes much of Atlanta; Lane County, Oregon, which includes Eugene; and King, Spokane, Pierce and Skagit counties in Washington. At least two of the mailings were reported to include messages, but beyond an apparent call to stop the election sent to the Pierce County Elections Office in Tacoma, their nature was unclear.

The Pierce County mailing included a white powder later identified as baking soda. A preliminary analysis of letters sent to King and Spokane counties in Washington identified the presence of fentanyl, law-enforcement authorities said. The letter sent to Fulton County was identified and flagged as a possible threat but had not yet been delivered, said Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state.

Fentanyl can be fatal if ingested even in small doses, but in general, experts say, skin contact such as might occur when opening a letter poses little risk. None of the affected election offices reported injuries to employees.

The FBI and the US Postal Service are investigating the letters, most of which arrived in Wednesday’s mail. In Washington state, they arrived only days after at least two synagogues in Seattle, the largest city in King County, received packages containing white crystalline or powdery substances.

Officials in the affected states called the mailings threats to the democratic process. Raffensperger called on candidates for political office to denounce them.

“This is domestic terrorism and needs to be condemned by anyone who holds elected office and wants to hold elected office,” he said. “If they don’t condemn this, then they’re not worthy of the office they’re running for.” He said his own son died 5-1/2 years ago of a fentanyl overdose.

While the mailings drew national attention, intimidation and threats of violence against election officials have become commonplace since former President Donald Trump and other Republican officeholders began raising baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

The Fulton County Department of Registration and Elections, singled out early by Trump and others claiming fraud, has been a frequent target, but hardly the only one. It was not clear whether the mailing to Atlanta had any connection to the racketeering trial playing out in Fulton County court. But election offices nationwide have tightened security, screening visitors and sometimes even installing bulletproof glass, in recent years.

Jena Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state, said on Thursday that she had received more than 60 death threats since she was named as a defendant in September in a lawsuit challenging Trump’s right to appear on the 2024 presidential ballot. Threats against officials statewide are common enough that her office has established a process for detecting them.

“We’re seeing a high threat environment toward election workers,” said Griswold, a Democrat.

In Oregon, “the very charged interactions with patrons, voting or not, the aggressive pursuits of staff — we’re starting to see that here as well,” said Devon Ashbridge, the spokesperson for the Lane County Elections office. “This has been a frankly frightening situation.”

Nationally, the tide of threatening behavior toward election workers is a factor in the growing number of people leaving the profession and the difficulty in recruiting replacements.

“We do see trends in retirements, but this is on a much grander scale than we’ve ever seen before,” said Tammy Patrick, the chief executive officer for programs at the National Association of Election Officials.

The Justice Department has filed criminal charges involving election-related threats against at least 14 people since it formed a task force on the issue in June 2021. Griswold and others say, however, that both the federal and state responses have fallen short of what is needed.

And they say they worry that the supercharged atmosphere surrounding the coming presidential election will only make matters worse.

Election workers are “our neighbors, our grandparents, Republicans, Democrats together,” Griswold said. “They didn’t sign up for a really hostile environment for participating in American democracy.”

(Published 10 November 2023, 03:32 IST)

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