When the two sides of an increasingly divided nation collide in ugly, sometimes violent incidents, it makes us wonder where we as a nation are headed.
The latest incident struck close to home this week. Reuters released a report Wednesday about nine cases of Americans making violent threats against election workers across the country. One of those interviewed is apparently a man from Bennington, who wouldn’t give his name but told Reuters he lives in the woods and is a construction worker.
His threats started shortly after the election loss of the former president in November 2020 and have been aimed at the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, Dominion Voting Systems — whose voting technology he blamed for the president’s defeat — and at times Reuters’ reporters themselves.
The threats were violent, suggesting election workers should kill themselves or be killed.
Remarkably, Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said the comments weren’t criminal and instead were protected free speech. On that recommendation, Vermont State Police declined to investigate.
Thibault is right to tread carefully on this legal point. Vermonters value free speech rights and put up with a lot to ensure that robust and expressive debate is protected. We as a newspaper are especially committed to preserving the First Amendment right of free speech, and we invite sometimes heated debate on our pages about issues that matter to our readers.
These death threats — and others like them aimed at town clerks and Election Day poll workers — go too far to ignore. Threatening the lives of everyday Vermonters, who work for little or no pay to count votes and staff polling places, cannot be tolerated.
The identity of the caller from Bennington remains unconfirmed, and it’s unclear if he actually lives in Vermont. Still, the possibility that someone so close to the Secretary of State’s Office in Montpelier is threatening the lives of employees is enough to frighten staff and cast a dark shadow over coming to work every day.
Shooters, whether in newsrooms, malls, schools, town offices or on the street, have become a terrifying modern reality. These threats are not an abstraction; they are playing out in other parts of the country and the world.
Bennington’s state senator, Richard Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he has been working with other lawmakers, Secretary of State Jim Condos and Thibault to draft legislation to change the system and protect election workers.
That’s a valuable discussion to have. This case makes it clear that Vermont law needs to change.
The players drafting the proposed changes need to walk that line between restricting legitimate free speech and protecting the lives of Vermonters who face these threats. Talk is not cheap when one party is threatening to murder the other.
We will watch for legislative action on this issue, not only to protect the lives of our neighbors, but because our democracy depends upon safe and healthy elections.