Politics

'Death to Traitors:' S.C. Election Workers Threatened After State Freedom Caucus Head's Questionable Social Media Posts

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The threat came Friday—a fresh reminder of why law enforcement officers are taking shifts to protect workers at the South Carolina State Election Commission’s headquarters in Columbia.

It wasn’t “watch your back” or “we’re coming for you,” though election commission workers have received both those threats in recent days.

The newer threat was even more chilling.

“It was ‘Death to traitors,’ or something close to that,” John Michael Catalano, a spokesman for the election commission, said Friday in an interview with The Arena.

The threats—coming in by phone, by email, sometimes anonymously and often from out of state—are the reasons there will be extra security at the commission’s office for the foreseeable future.

The threats have been fielded mostly by front desk workers and some have been directed at the commission’s executive leadership, Catalano said.

He said that while commission workers don’t have anything to suggest someone is going to act on the threats, an officer will be standing guard for now.

The threats show what can happen when a message, particularly a message from a state legislator, is missing key pieces of information or context, said Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University.

The threats came after state Rep. Adam Morgan, who is a Greenville County Republican and chairman of the ultraconservative South Carolina Freedom Caucus, took to social media to claim that a refugee in Spartanburg received multiple voter registration forms.

Morgan posted on X, formerly Twitter, beginning his message with an emoji of a red siren.

“Is the Federal Gov giving voter registration forms to non-citizens?” Morgan wrote on the social media platform Monday.
“Yes, at least in SC. A refugee sent us this form that was given to her in a packet at the Social Security Office in Spartanburg. She asked ‘Why are they giving these to non-citizens?’
“EXACTLY.”

In a follow-up tweet, Morgan issued a correction, saying that the form had come through the state’s Medicaid agency and that the refugee had “confused the offices.”

Morgan did not respond to two voicemails and a text message seeking comment.

The state election commission issued a prepared statement last week saying that it “has not received any specific information that non-U.S. citizens are fraudulently being registered to vote in our state.”

But that statement didn’t stop the threats aimed at election commission workers.

They now join elections officials in many other states who have faced threats to their personal safety in recent years.

Critics suggest that Morgan’s tweet storm amounts to a political stunt from a man who is seeking a higher elected office, and that what he is doing will lead to a waste of time and state resources.

David Woodard, a Clemson University professor emeritus and longtime political consultant for Republican candidates, has decades of experience in what happens during the final days on the campaign trail. Woodard said Morgan may be “just trying to stir a pot before an election.”

The ripple effects of a tweet or two

Morgan’s tweets about the refugee and related tweets that followed set off ripple effects in multiple state agencies and in the office of Gov. Henry McMaster.

The South Carolina Freedom Caucus sent McMaster a letter Wednesday calling for an immediate investigation of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the Medicaid program.

The caucus asked for an investigation to “determine whether or not this Cabinet agency should be held accountable for misspending taxpayer funds to illegally register non-citizens to vote,” according to its letter, which was also posted on X.

McMaster responded the same day with a letter to Morgan, and the governor’s correspondence was also posted to X.

The governor informed Morgan that Chief Mark Keel, head of the State Law Enforcement Division, would be contacting Morgan immediately to arrange a meeting.

“This will allow you to provide SLED with any and all evidence, documents and information that you possess in order to evaluate the authenticity of your allegations of illegalities,” McMaster wrote.

McMaster called Morgan’s allegations “very serious,” and asked the state Freedom Caucus leader to give the SLED chief “your full and immediate cooperation.” The caucus also asked McMaster to order state agencies to stop giving voter registration and voter declination forms to noncitizens.

Federal law requires states to offer voting registration opportunities at offices that provide various kinds of public assistance, including Medicaid. The requirement is laid out in the National Voter Registration Act, which has been in place since the 1990s. Officials for both the election commission and the state Department of Health and Human Services issued statements in response to what unfolded on social media.

The election commission said it is “actively auditing voter data” through a U.S. Department of Homeland Security database “to ensure that only U.S. citizens are included on the active list” of registered voters.

“Regardless of the method of registration, no voter may be registered in South Carolina without signing an oath swearing that they are a citizen of the United States,” the election commission said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday.

“To date, the SEC has not received any specific information that non-U.S. citizens are fraudulently being registered to vote in our state,” the election commission said.

The state Department of Health and Human Services “does not believe the state Medicaid agency should have a role in voter registration,” spokesman Jeff Leieritz said.

“However, absent the legal authority to make this change, SCDHHS remains required by federal law to provide voter registration application forms with each Medicaid application,” Leieritz said in a written statement.

When facts aren’t enough

Since Morgan’s tweet that ignited the firestorm, the state election commission has seen a “massive spike” in phone calls from people upset about noncitizens voting, said Catalano, the commission spokesman.

“Which, of course, they do not do in South Carolina,” he said Friday.

The fervor — and the phone calls — connected to all of this may not taper off for a while.

The election commission’s statement about the integrity of South Carolina’s elections and the Department of Health and Human Services’ assertion that it is following federal law may not alter the opinions of people who believe something is wrong – even if nothing actually is wrong, said Vinson, the Furman University professor.

“Not everyone is going to look at something they see and say, ‘Hmmm, I wonder if this is true,’” Vinson said. “Especially if what they see is coming from someone who they think is a credible source — like a state legislator. And if what they are seeing lines up with what they are predisposed to believe, some of those people will act. Not everyone will react with actual malice, but they will get on the phone and say things and send anonymous messages.”

The form that Morgan posted with his initial tweet is not one that allows a person to cast a ballot. The form simply asks if a person is interested in registering to vote. But that person must still sign paperwork swearing that he or she is a U.S. citizen, Catalano said.

But that may not matter to people who only saw Morgan’s tweet and looked no further. “People aren’t always going to look for, or see, any follow-up information,” Vinson said. “And even if they do, they may not change their minds. Once people believe something, they are not going to necessarily disbelieve it.”

It’s unclear how many resources SLED is dedicating to a review of Morgan’s claims.

Renée Wunderlich, a spokeswoman for SLED, said only that “every case is unique and every allegation is unique.” Wunderlich said that SLED will “review the allegations provided.”

In the meantime, some state legislators are critical of Morgan’s actions and the outcry they created.

“Out of ALL the life & death serious things SLED is handling,… we about to tie up Chief Keel and the agency over an allegation voter registration forms are in a standard packet of materials and someone handed the packet (to) someone who can’t vote…a form that I just got on the internet in like -0.57 seconds,” state Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Democrat from Bamberg, tweeted. “Reason #736493748 why I can’t stand politics.”

State Rep. Neal Collins, a Pickens County Republican, said he thinks Morgan is trying to get the spotlight because he is seeking a seat in U.S. Congress.

Morgan is running against Republican incumbent William Timmons in the 4th Congressional District, which covers most of Greenville and Spartanburg counties.

“I think Adam Morgan is 30 days from an election and doing what he can to get attention,” Collins said.

Title photo: Travis Bell/STATEHOUSE CAROLINA

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