Ohio man sentenced for threatening to kill an Arizona election official

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Monday that an Ohio man who sent death threats to Arizona election officials was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. 

Joshua Russell, 46, of Bucyrus, Ohio, pleaded guilty in August 2023 after he was charged for leaving a series of voicemails threatening the life of an election official who worked for the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. 

On primary Election Day in August 2022, Russell accused the worker of election fraud, called them a traitor and told them to have their “affairs in order,” adding that their “days are extremely numbered.” 

The next month, Russell left another voicemail calling the worker a “terrorist and a criminal.” 

“You have a few short months to see yourself behind bars, or we will see you to the grave,” Russell said. The Ohio man left one last voicemail in November 2022, again threatening the worker’s life. 

“We will not wait for you to be drugged through court. A war is coming for you. The entire nation is coming for you. And we will stop, at no end, until you are in the ground. You’re a traitor to this nation,” Russell said. “You’re a [expletive] piece of [expletive] communist, and you just signed your own death warrant. Get your affairs in order, ’cause your days are very short.” 

Arizona has seen an influx of threats to election workers and elected officials since the 2020 Presidential election as the state was at the forefront of a number of election conspiracies and prominent election denialists. 

At a press conference in Phoenix, officials with the Department of Justice and the FBI condemned the harassment election workers are facing and said that they are making such threats a top priority. 

Russell is not the first person from out of state who made similar threats to have been charged and convicted. U.S. Attorney for Arizona Gary Restaino said that 20 people have been charged for similar threats across the country, including seven involving threats made to Arizona officials. 

They included direct messages to the Maricopa County Elections Department making violent threats, bomb threats made against the Secretary of State’s Office and even phone calls to the personal cell phone numbers of election officials. Restaino also highlighted a case in New Mexico where an elected official there had bullets fly through their home due to election conspiracy theories. 

“There is no constitutional right to vigilantes,” Restaino said. 

John Dixon Keller, the head of the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force, said that threats are having a tangible impact on election workers who have been fleeing the profession, citing the threats as the reason why. 

In Arizona, 98% of voters will have new election officials this year. 

Arizona has seen a drain of 176 collective years of experience since November 2020. Additionally, the median amount of experience for officials in the 12 impacted counties has dropped from about 10 years to about one. 

Collectively, the western states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have seen more than 1,800 years of experience leave.

“Attacks on these officials is an attack on the very foundations of our democracy,” Keller said. 

Keller said that his office, the Public Integrity Unit, has been sending a liaison to speak with election officials across the country to get a handle on the “evolving” threats that they may be seeing and facing ahead of 2024. Further, he said that, while robust debate is a part of politics, these sorts of threats will not be tolerated by the DOJ. 

“Death threats are not debate,” he said. 

Phoenix FBI Special Agent Akil Davis urged people who “see something (to) say something” in regards to people who may act on radical beliefs about the election. 

Those who may want to report a suspected threat or violent act are urged to contact their local FBI office and ask to speak with the Elections Crimes Coordinator. 

“Any threat to these public servants is completely unacceptable,” Davis said. 

When asked if the DOJ has any interest in taking a proactive approach in addressing the platforms and people who spread misinformation about the election, Restaino said that likely won’t happen. 

“We’re not likely to be going after the platforms themselves,” he said, adding that they would like to work with the platforms to minimize disinformation on their platforms. 

Restaino also noted that Arizona has become the “leader” on tackling these sorts of threats as their office hosted a training on how to contend with these sorts of cases. 

“We really don’t want to be a leader in this, but we are,” Restaino said.

Arizona election officials are already planning to be on the offensive this year as the battleground state will continue to be a hotbed for election denialism and conspiracy theories.

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