Georgia Today: Behind Relentless Death Threats Against Raffenspergers, Georgia Election Officials
Imagine receiving anonymous text messages telling you your family will be killed. That’s exactly what happened to Tricia Raffensperger, wife of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. This and other threatening messages first came to light after new reporting into the harassment many elections officials have lived with since Donald Trump lost Georgia in November. The investigation by news outlet Reuters reveals the scope of Trump supporters’ months of menacing tactics and never-before-seen texts, voicemails and emails directed at elections officials across the state.
Steve Fennessy: Imagine receiving a text message from a stranger that says, “You and your family will be killed very slowly.” That's just what happened to Tricia Raffensperger, the wife of Georgia's Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger. This and other never-before-seen messages first came to light after new reporting into the harassment many election officials have faced after Donald Trump lost the state of Georgia. Tricia Raffensperger spoke openly about the barrage of threats she and her family received in the aftermath of Trump's loss in November. Now, the investigation by news outlet Reuters reveals the extent of the intimidation campaign that continues against the Raffenspergers and against election officials throughout Georgia.
[News tape] CNN: The death threats came by text to Tricia Raffensperger, wife of Georgia's Secretary of State, detailed in a Reuters interview. The messages coming in April, many months after Donald Trump lost the election, earlier threats even forcing them into hiding for nearly one week.
Steve Fennessy: We'll hear more now about the exclusive investigation in this episode of Georgia Today. I'm joined by Reuters investigative journalist Linda So. Her reporting reveals the scope of Trump supporters' menacing tactics and never-before-seen texts, voicemails and emails directed at elections officials throughout the state. And what happened next.
Steve Fennessy: So, Linda, I'd like to set this up by going back to one night in particular in late November, which was a few weeks after the election in which Donald Trump lost. He lost the popular vote. He lost the Electoral College and, specifically, he lost the state of Georgia, which was the first time a Republican candidate for president had failed to win our state since 1992. And so at that point Brad Raffensperger, who is Georgia's Secretary of State, is under intense pressure, pressure from the White House all the way down, to overturn the election results here in Georgia. And by that time, I think the votes had been counted twice already. They were about to be counted a third time and each time the results stood. And so anyway, that night in late November, the Raffenspergers' daughter in law returns home. And what does she find at her house?
Linda So: She returned home with her two young children and she found the garage door had been open. The door leading to the house was open. All the lights inside the house were turned on. And when she left the house, she told police, that none of the lights were on. So somebody had turned all the lights on in the house and moved items around in the house. However, nothing was taken. And the family saw this as, really, an act of intimidation, kind of to send the message, we know where you live. And so it was very frightening for the daughter-in-law. And this is the daughter-in-law who was widowed. The Raffenspergers lost their eldest son, Brenton, three years ago. So this is his wife and their two small children. So the daughter-in-law immediately called the Raffenspergers, let them know that there had been a break-in at the house. And that same evening, the Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, was leaving the house to pick up dinner for the family. And at the time he had security detail with him. They were leaving the house and they noticed three suspicious cars with out-of-state license plates. So another guard approached these men and asked them who they were. And these men replied “We're with the Oath Keepers.” And they gave a reason that didn't make sense. They said We heard that Black Lives Matter protesters were going to be here so we came out just to protect the area.” And so the security guard who was there asked them to leave, which they did.
Steve Fennessy: And who specifically are the Oath Keepers?
Linda So: The Oath Keepers are a far-right extremist group. They were members of that group we now know were involved in the deadly U.S. Capitol riot on January 6. So it prompted the Raffenspergers, their grown children and all their grandchildren to go to an undisclosed location because they really felt like they couldn't protect themselves.
Steve Fennessy: Well, and as you reported in your story for Reuters, those events that occurred on that night in late November were not the first threats against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his family. What were some of the other messages they received in the days and weeks following the election?
Linda So: Tricia Raffensperger told me that she was the first person to be targeted. She recalls on the day the two U.S. Republican senators from Georgia had come out and issued a statement calling on Brad Raffensperger to resign, saying his management of the election was an embarrassment.
[News tape] CNN: Raffensperger pushed back and issued his own statement saying that he would not resign, criticized the two Republican senators. And I asked Loeffler about that response. She didn't respond herself, walked in silence, didn't comment.
Linda So: It was like a light switch going off. She said that day is the first day she received a threatening text message. Not only were they death threats, but they were sexualized messages, calling her vulgar insults. And there was one in particular that stood out to her. She said somebody had used her husband's name to create a fake email account in his name and sent her a message to make it seem like it was her husband, the Secretary of State, who sent the message, basically saying, I want you dead. And she's still receiving them. You know, I asked her, why do you feel like you were the one to be targeted? And she said she felt like people were using it as a way to try to coerce her husband to resign, to flood her with these threats so that she would talk to the Secretary of State and say, “Please don't do this anymore.” And she said she was not going to do that.
Steve Fennessy: Did you get a feel for the emotional toll that this was taking, not just on her, but on him, on their family?
Linda So: Certainly for the Raffenspergers, Tricia especially, this was difficult because they lost their eldest son, Brenton, three years ago. And Tricia told me, you know, it's very scary receiving these messages. And she got emotional when she talked about her son Brenton, who had passed away. And she said, “As a mother, as a parent, I've already lost a child and the last thing I want is to lose another or for harm to come to my family.” So it's been very emotional and a scary experience for everyone involved.
Steve Fennessy: And you reported that they — she even decided that she shouldn't host her three-year-old and five-year-old grandchildren at her house.
Linda So: That was another thing. Yes. After they started receiving these death threats in November she made the difficult decision of canceling the weekly visits with her grandchildren. These are the children of her son who passed away. They would visit once a week.
[News tape] CNN: She canceled weekly visits at her home with two grandchildren, three and five years old. “I couldn't have them come to my house anymore. You don't know if these people are actually going to act on this stuff,” she said.
Linda So: She didn't want her grandchildren to be exposed to that because they've already gone through so much. I want to read to you some of these text messages because I feel like it just shows the seriousness of some of these threats that her family has been subjected to. These text messages came in April. One read, "You and your family will be killed very slowly." A second one said, "Please pray. We plan for the death of you and your family every day. I'm sorry." And a third read, "Keep opposing the audit of Fulton County's 2020 election ballots and somebody in your family is going to have a very unfortunate incident."
Steve Fennessy: But this is the first time that we're hearing real details about the scope, the breadth and depth of those threats. Why are they speaking now about that?
Linda So: With Tricia, even though she is a very private person, I feel like she felt it was time to come out and speak about this to let people know. She told me she finally felt it was time to share her story so that this won't continue to happen, not only to her family and to her husband, the Secretary of State, but also to all the election workers, even the ones that we don't hear about, the volunteers who spend time on Election Day manning these polling centers.
[News tape] CNN: These incidents led Gabriel Sterling, a Georgia election official, to angrily call on Trump and Republican leaders to stop the disinformation and condemn the threats.
Gabriel Sterling: Someone's going to get hurt. Someone's going to get shot. Someone's going to get killed.
Steve Fennessy: Stay with us. Up next on Georgia Today, we'll hear more about the intimidation campaign against Georgia election officials and how the harassment we saw in 2020 might be a sign of things to come in future elections. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. In this week's episode of Georgia Today, I'm joined by Linda So, the reporter behind an investigation detailing violent threats and intimidation against state elections officials during and after the 2020 elections. So's investigation finds the intimidation by Donald Trump supporters is ongoing. Linda, you mentioned that you weren't looking at just what happened with the Secretary of State and the threats against him and his family, but also election workers across the state. So I wanted to get a few examples of what some of those poll workers experienced, because some of them are volunteers, none of them are elected, but yet they're still on the receiving end of — of not just criticism, but outright physical threats of violence and of death.
Linda So: I spoke with a lot of people within the Fulton County elections office, and they, too, were fiercely targeted. Former President Trump had criticized and accused many of those workers of committing fraud, throwing out hundreds of thousands of ballots.
Steve Fennessy: None of that has been accompanied by any evidence and the results in Georgia have withstood three, and we might be coming up on a fourth, count.
Linda So: Tricia Raffensperger, she said, “My husband, the Secretary of State, was just doing his job and the results show that there was no fraud.” But yet she is still receiving death threats, people texting her at all hours of the day and night. She says she goes to bed she gets them, in the middle of the night at 3 a.m., she gets text messages, she wakes up to them. I spoke with Fulton County's elections supervisor, who said between Christmas and around New Year's Day, he received roughly 150 hateful messages and phone calls, threatening all sorts of things.
Voicemail: "You need to get your act together or people like me will go after people like you."
Voicemail: "I think you need a pair of handcuffs slapped on you. It's quite obvious the fraud that went on. So why don't you just come out and admit it? And quit jerking the American people around."
Voicemail: "Just wondering how much they paid you. When I'm done with you, you'll be in prison."
Linda So: I spoke with Ralph Jones. He's the registration chief; he's been working in elections in Georgia for about 30 years. He's dedicated his life to this job and he also he's an African American man and he received racist calls. He said one in particular was very disturbing. He received an email from somebody who said he deserved to be dragged to death.
Steve Fennessy: Behind a truck, right?
Linda So: Behind a truck, yes. And you know, he said that after the November election, one night, it was already dark and somebody he didn't recognize showed up at his front door and knocked on the door and said, “Hey, I'm the new neighbor. I just want to talk to you.” And Ralph Jones had lived in this neighborhood a long time. He knew who lived there and everything that happened. And so he knew that these were not new neighbors that nobody knew had moved into the neighborhood. So he didn't open the door. So for these people who really are in public service jobs and many do this type of work because, you know, it's their civic duty. They see it as their civic duty. After everything he's been through, all the calls and strangers showing up at his door, all the death threats that he received, I asked him did that ever make him think, “I don't want to do this anymore or I need to find another line of work?” And he said, “No.” You know, even though he's been the victim of all of that, he told me “I just try to look at the bright side. I'm here to do my job and I love my job. I'm not going to leave it.” He's a very positive person. It was just incredible speaking with him.
Steve Fennessy: But we can't expect that everyone who's on the receiving end of this stuff is going to have the same reaction. I mean, to what degree should we be concerned that, you know, the apparatus that that ensures that our elections are held and held transparently, that the people who do that are going to keep coming back?
Linda So: I spoke with one part-time volunteer in Bartow County. Her name was Vanessa Montgomery. She also has worked in elections for a very long time. And she told me that she still hasn't decided if she's going to come back or not. And it was all prompted by a very scary incident that happened to her after the January runoffs in Georgia. She had just shut down the polling center for the evening. She had loaded her car up with all the ballots and the information to deliver it to the elections office. And she was in the car with her daughter, who was also a volunteer worker at that precinct. Her daughter was driving and they noticed that somebody was waiting for them in the parking lot as they were leaving. At the time they didn't think much of it but as they were driving towards the elections office, they noticed that they were being followed and followed very closely. Vanessa Montgomery called 911 and had a dispatcher with her on the phone the entire time who was navigating them to a safe place where officers would meet them. They were nearly run off the road in one instance. And Vanessa Montgomery told me, you know, she's like, “What were they trying to do? Were they trying to hit us? Cause a crash to steal our ballots?” And this is an African American woman working in a predominantly white district. And the incident left her shaken. She said she went home and had a panic attack, her first panic attack since serving as an Army officer in Bosnia, where she witnessed people being blown up by land mines. And that was decades ago. And she doesn't know if she's going to come back. And I spoke with her boss, Bartow County's election supervisor, who considers Vanessa Montgomery one of his most reliable, trustworthy polling managers. And he had mentioned he's very worried about what this is going to do for future elections, because a lot of time, these poll workers are people who come back. They have the institutional knowledge, they have the experience. So he relies on the people who come back year after year to volunteer on Election Day. But he feels that now that people are up against this, they have to deal with this harassment and the threats and the intimidation. He's really worried that he's going to lose valuable poll workers with experience to run a good election.
[News tape] CNN: Now, some federal judges overseeing the Jan. 6 insurrection cases have expressed concerns that Trump's rhetoric could inspire more threats of violence. There's also worry about the impact this disinformation could have on election workers and officials during the 2022 midterm elections.
Steve Fennessy: We have all of this sort of digital forensic evidence. Has anyone been charged with threatening any of these officials?
Linda So: No one so far has been charged. Tricia mentioned to me that she feels like more should be done. On that end, the Fulton County elections director, Richard Barron, also no one, to his knowledge, has been arrested in connection with these threats. So the Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis announced in February that her office would look into that Jan. 2 phone call that the former president made to Secretary of State Raffensperger, basically asking him to find votes so that he would be declared the winner in Georgia.
[News tape] 11Alive: As Fani Willis officially became Fulton County District Attorney, a phone call between then-President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger became public.
Donald Trump: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.
[News tape] 11Alive: Raffensperger took the call from within Fulton County, where the state capital sits. Willis says with time she determined only her office with jurisdiction over Fulton County is suited to investigate. Willis, though, is not naming names. She says she cannot say whether an individual, specifically Trump or his supporters, are under investigation. Simply, she is looking into specific events, will go where the investigation leads them and will act if she feels a crime was committed.
Fani Willis: Obviously it's been reported around the world, that phone call. And so we have said, yes, that is part of the investigation, but we're not narrowing it to that.
[News tape] 11Alive: Last week, Willis sent these letters to Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary Raffensperger and other top Georgia officials, letting them know of the investigation and quote, At this time, we have no reason to believe that any Georgia official is a target of this investigation.
Steve Fennessy: I mean, elections are the bulwark of our democracy, and to have them undermined in such an intimidating and menacing way is — is so disturbing. And then we also have Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger running for reelection. In terms of, sort of the, I guess, how the election is going to be held, what do you expect based upon how 2020 went?
Linda So: Security in upcoming elections will be top of mind. They're thinking about ways to protect their workers, make sure that not only the voters stay safe, but the people who are working these polling places stay safe.
Steve Fennessy: We're living through something that I thought only occurred in other places.
Linda So: The Fulton County Election Director, Richard Barron, said after what he lived through last year, he said he felt like this country was descending into a "third world" mentality. You know, he has spent his spare time as an election observer overseas and he said some of the things he witnessed overseas in third world countries, he said he felt like he was witnessing that here in the United States and it's something that he never, ever expected out of this country.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Reuters investigative reporter Linda So. Brad Raffensperger's fellow Republicans have continued to ostracize him over his refusal to overturn the 2020 election in Donald Trump's favor. At its recent convention, the Georgia GOP actually censured the secretary of state. And as he runs for reelection, Raffensperger's nomination in next year's primaries is by no means assured. Jody Hice, a Republican congressman who called the Jan. 6 insurrection, quote, “Our 1776 moment,” unquote, has announced a campaign to win the Republican nomination himself for the office of Secretary of State. For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Don't forget to leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thank you for listening. We'll see you next week.