Lawmakers spar over Justice Department priorities during hearing on threats against election workers


Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sparred Wednesday over the Justice Department’s priorities during a hearing on the Biden administration’s efforts to protect election workers from harassment and threats in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.

Republicans including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said a Justice task force has little to show for its investigations spurred by voter anger over the election, while failing to devote similar resources to protecting conservative Supreme Court justices from demonstrators. 

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah took issue with the enormous number of investigations undertaken by the Justice Department’s elections threat task force, compared with the small number of prosecutions it launched from those probes. 

Mr. Lee asked Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite why only 100 of the 1,000 complaints sent to his team since it was formed one year ago were worthy of investigation, and why the department prosecuted only five defendants.

“So you’ve got five prosecuted over out of 1,000 complaints and 100 investigated,” Mr. Lee said. “What efforts are being made to ensure that your investigations aren’t having an undue effect on the chilling of First Amendment protected activity?”

“We certainly embrace the scope of our First Amendment protections in political speech,” Mr. Polite said. “It’s part of the reason why the work of the task force has been so significant. It is involved in reviewing each and every one of those communications to see if it actually satisfies the very high bar that is set by our courts, for those constitutional parameters.”

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Mr. Lee, noting the assassination attempt against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, said, “I hope within the department, you’re being fair. I would ask within the department that you’re looking out for how many of those cases are being investigated and prosecuted.”

Mr. Lee said, “And if you’ve got a task force for this conduct … I would hope that you would have a few to look at violations” of the federal law that bars protesting near buildings or homes occupied by judges and other court-related personnel.

Republicans also asked Mr. Polite why the Justice Department does not have a task force prioritizing the investigations of recent attacks on crisis pregnancy centers.

“It seems as if there’s one set that you are prioritizing, and there is another set that you’re saying is not of equal importance,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, Georgia Democrat, accused his Republicans of “muddying the waters” and “diminishing” the threats that election workers are facing since former President Donald Trump questioned the outcome of the election results in his state.

“I find it necessary … to remind my colleagues of what happened in Georgia, where amidst Donald Trump’s endless barrage of lies, some of them amplified by members of this body, he sought to hold on to power by any means necessary,” Mr. Ossoff said.

“I am astounded … that our colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee have decided with the opportunity to hear from two senior officials about what they’re doing to protect the integrity of our election processes are instead diminishing the threat or suggesting that this isn’t an appropriate use of federal resources,” Mr. Ossoff said. 

Sen. Alex Padilla of California, who previously served as his state’s secretary of state said that election workers “rightfully fear that they’re under increased threat from election deniers and others who may wish them harm” and that it is the federal government’s responsibility to address those concerns.

The hearing, called “Protecting Our Democracy’s Frontline Workers,” focused on threats against election workers. Other witnesses were Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, and the Manhattan Institute’s Rafael Mangual.


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