Join our brand new verified AMN Telegram channel and get important news uncensored!

Feds want man in 2020 Michigan election threat case punished with terror enhancement

Tina Barton, city clerk, Rochester Hills, Mich., left, and Ruth Johnson, Michigan's secretary of state, demonstrate the new voting scanner on Aug. 2, 2017. (Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News/TNS)

An Indiana man should spend more time in federal prison for threatening to kill the Rochester Hills, Michigan, clerk after the 2020 election, prosecutors argued, saying he “terrorized” the election official amid an increase of threats aimed at politicians.

Andrew Nickels, 38, of Carmel, Indiana, is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Laurie Michelson on Tuesday, and federal prosecutors in Detroit are seeking at least a two-year prison sentence and have enlisted Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to convey the impact threats have on election workers.

Nickels is being sentenced to five months after pleading guilty to threatening to kill former Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton after she defended the integrity of the 2020 presidential election, in which Trump lost Michigan to Democrat Joe Biden. Nickels pleaded guilty to one count of transmitting threats in interstate commerce, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.

“… you frauded out America of a real election, where Donald Trump blew your … a— out of the water,” Nickels said in one voicemail message, according to prosecutors. “(Y)ou’re gonna pay for it, you will pay for it; 10 million-plus patriots will surround you when you least expect it, and your little infantile Deep State security agency has no time to protect you because they’ll be bought out and we’ll f—— kill you.”

Barton and her family lived in fear and added security measures at their home after being threatened by Nickels. Prosecutors faulted Nickels for taking an “irreversible toll” on the former Rochester Hills clerk.

“He caused her to take protective measures to ensure her safety. And, with his coercive, intimidating, vengeful death threat, Nickels threatened the broader system of free and fair election administration in the State of Michigan,” prosecutors Frances Carlson and Tanya Senanayake wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

“… the victims — and all individuals who administer our elections — deserve to be able to do their jobs without fear and intimidation, and to know that those who choose to threaten them will face just punishment,” the prosecutors added.

Nickels’ lawyer, Steve Scharg, did not respond to a message seeking comment. But after Nickels pleaded guilty in February, the defendant’s attorney said: “This case shows how mental health affects so many people. I wish we had more treatments available for helping people with mental health issues.”

Senanayake is a trial attorney with the counterterrorism section of the U.S. Justice Department’s national security division in Washington, D.C. Prosecutors are arguing that Nickels qualifies for a terrorism enhancement that would add another year to the advisory sentencing guidelines in the case. The enhancement is justified, prosecutors argue, because the threats were designed “to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.”

The number of open FBI investigations into domestic terrorism has more than quadrupled since 2013. Researchers have reviewed 501 cases involving threats to public officials, according to National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center researchers Pete Simi of Chapman University and Seamus Hughes of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

This year is on pace to set a new record for the number of federal prosecutions involving threats to public officials, said Hughes, a senior faculty researcher.

What ‘terrorism enhancement’ means

Terrorism enhancements have been used sparingly in the past, occasionally against terrorism suspects who have been arrested on a non-terrorism-related charge, Hughes said.

“It’s a tool by the Justice Department to put their finger on the scale and say that these types of crimes are particularly egregious, with the hope that it deters others in the future,” he said.

“The inclusion of a national security prosecutor from D.C. is an indication that the Justice Department is involved in these types of cases to a greater extent than they were previously and an increased dedication of personnel and resources on it,” Hughes added.

The threats were targeted most frequently at members of the criminal justice system and military, politicians and election officials.

In the Michigan case, Nickels left a voicemail message for Barton after the election.

“We’re watching your … mouth talk about how you think that there’s no irregularities,” Nickels said in a voicemail message on Nov. 10, 2020, according to the indictment.

Barton previously wrote on X that Nickels’ behavior “has permanently impacted me and my family’s lives.”

“I will never be able to turn back the clock and go back to living in a sense of peace and security as I had done prior to this incident,” wrote Barton, a Republican. “I strongly believe that election officials should never be intimidated, threatened or harassed for doing their jobs serving the public.”

The Nickels case also was a recent act of alleged antigovernment extremism in Michigan targeting politicians in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Grand juries and federal prosecutors in Michigan have filed charges against people in recent months and years for threatening President Joe Biden, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, other Democratic politicians, and law enforcement officers as well as members of the LGBTQ+ and Jewish communities.

Also, at least 28 people from Michigan — and more than 1,300 nationwide — have been charged with crimes related to the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

In her letter to the court, Benson called the former Rochester Hills clerk “an American hero” for ensuring the vote tally was accurate and reflected the will of the city’s voters.

“Just because clerks have been incredibly resilient to these attacks cannot mean that we have reached a new normal,” wrote Benson, a Democrat. “These threats pose real danger to dedicated public servants and present a crisis for not only American democracy, but our most fundamental values. There must be swift and appropriate consequences for threatening our election professionals.”

Barton’s experience is not isolated.

Almost 40% of local election officials reported being threatened, harassed or abused in recent years, according to a 2024 survey conducted by the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

In a letter to the court, the co-chairs of the National Council on Election Integrity and Carah Ong Whaley, director of election protection at Issue One, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on campaign finance reform, called for stringent legal actions and providing a “robust response to such threats.”

“This case is a stark reminder of the severity and immediacy of the threats against those who uphold our electoral system,” they wrote.

The day Nickels allegedly issued the threat, Nov. 10, 2020, was one week after the presidential election. On that date, a Washington Post story referenced a video Barton posted on Twitter.

In the video, Barton responded to claims by Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel that 2,000 Republican ballots in Rochester Hills had been “given to Democrats … due to a clerical error.”

Barton responded by saying “that McDaniel was referring to an ‘isolated mistake that was quickly rectified’ and called her allegation ‘categorically false,'” according to the story.

In his voicemail, Nickels also said: “(You) will f—— pay for your f—— lying ass remarks. Watch your f—— back.”

Barton oversaw elections in the Oakland County community from 2013 to March 2021. She later worked as a senior adviser for U.S. Election Assistance Commission and serves as a senior election expert with The Elections Group.


© 2024 The Detroit News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.