Since the 2020 election, state and local officials have faced a surge of violent threats, harassment, and intimidation. A new report published Thursday by the Brennan Center for Justice lays out how this abuse is reshaping the way public officials across the U.S. do their jobs, making them less likely to engage with constituents, hold public events, advocate for policies that could lead to blowback, or run for re-election.
More than 40% of state legislators surveyed reported being threatened or attacked in the past three years. Nearly 90% said they had suffered less severe abuse, including harassment, intimidation, and stalking. Almost 40% of local officials, including 50% of women, said the ongoing harassment made them less willing to run for re-election or to seek higher office. This tally includes many state and local election officials, who in 2020 bore the brunt of the anger of former President Donald Trump’s supporters, who falsely accused them of rigging that race and subsequently hounded many out of office. The resulting turnover means that more than 1 in 5 election administrators will be doing the job for the first time in 2024, according to the Brennan Center’s data.
“We never thought our lives, or most importantly, our family members’ or significant others’ lives, would be in jeopardy,” former Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat, said in the Brennan Center survey. “I think you’re going to lose a lot of good people because of it.”
Read More: The United States of Political Violence.
Public officials have always faced some level of anger from constituents who disagree with them. But the severity and scale of this “constant barrage of intimidating behavior is now [having] an impact on the way that they do their jobs,” Gowri Ramachandran, the deputy director of the elections and government program at the Brennan Center, tells TIME. “It's made people less willing to lead and legislate on so-called ‘contentious issues,’ and all of those things are having really severe impacts on the democratic system.”
The report is based on a series of national surveys conducted last year of more than 1,700 state legislators and local officials from all 50 states, as well as three dozen interviews with the Brennan Center. Approximately 1 in 5 state officials, and 40% of local officials, said they were less willing to work on policies considered controversial, like gun regulation or reproductive rights, due to harassment. More than half of state lawmakers said they believed this atmosphere was deterring their colleagues from advocating for these issues.
“I’ve had people who believe in the abolition of abortion…make death threats against my family, my children, myself,” a Republican state legislator described as having “moderate views about abortion” told the Brennan Center. “I’ve had people advocating to legalize marijuana make threats. It’s constant. It comes from every direction.”
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Notably, Republican state legislators reported seeing a greater increase in the “volume of abuse” than Democrats. The report’s authors partly attribute this to Republican officeholders being targeted by the party’s far-right “for refusing to back extreme positions,” paired with GOP leaders’ unwillingness to condemn violent rhetoric. This dynamic “likely distorts policymaking in ways that fail broad constituencies and makes nuanced, bipartisan lawmaking often impossible,” the report’s authors say.
Threats against officials who advocate for gun regulation have been especially severe in some cases. Illinois State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Democrat, said that she decided against spearheading bills on the topic because “my kids were too little, the threats were too common and too on point.” Several other officials mentioned feeling increasingly nervous while holding events or debates, even in government buildings.
“Sometimes we’re on the legislative floor, and in the galleries above us there are people who are armed,” Texas State Rep. Mary González, a Democrat, said in her survey. “Especially when we’re having those controversial debates, I’m thinking, ‘God, one person. It just takes one person.’ We’re like sitting ducks.”
The threats raise the specter of violence connected to the 2024 election. High-profile acts of political violence, like the hammer attack on Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s husband, by a right-wing conspiracy theorist, have drawn the most attention. But state and local officials have increasingly been targeted with violent rhetoric. Public officials have reported receiving bomb threats and letters with suspicious substances, being confronted with guns, having their homes shot at, and seeing their addresses and photos of their homes and their childrens’ schools posted online.
The abuse has often been more severe when directed at officials who were women, people of color, religious minorities, or LGBTQ. One female state legislator told the Brennan Center it had become commonplace to see people online “identifying my address or talking about my daughter or my mom or, you know, making overt rape or death threats.” Another female legislator said those targeting her for her public role “don’t directly say, ‘I’m going to kill her children.’ But they’ll make comments like, ‘We’re going to take over her home. Here’s the address. Here’s a photo of it. She lives here in [town], but her kids don’t go to school [in town] — they go in [neighboring town].’” Female state officials, especially women of color, reported they were nearly twice as likely as men to change their travel routes due to safety concerns, and were six times as likely to avoid traveling alone.
Some officials have resorted to spending their own money for extra safety precautions like security cameras to protect themselves, their staff, and their families. The rise in violent threats has also made others reconsider how accessible to be to their constituents. Almost 1 in 4 officials surveyed said they were less likely to hold constituent events in public spaces due to safety concerns, while half of all officials said they were more reluctant to post and engage on social media. While the report offers some recommendations, including regulating firearms at public events with officials, shielding officials’ home addresses, and more closely monitoring these threats to better allocate resources, experts warn these are just stopgap measures.
“I'm worried about the impact this will have on the pipeline of candidates for public office,” says Ramachandran, noting that the normalization of violent rhetoric directed towards public officials will continue to have a chilling effect. “Even before this kind of other behavior escalates into physical violence, it does have this corrosive effect on our democracy.”
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Write to Vera Bergengruen at email@example.com