How A Conspiracy-Theorizing Documentary Fueled A Wave Of Voter Intimidation In Arizona

Maricopa County Elections Department
Maricopa County Elections Department

On Monday, October 17, a little after sunset, a couple went to deposit their ballots at a drop box near a courthouse in Mesa, Arizona. As they approached the box, they noticed that a group of people was “hanging out” nearby, according to a complaint they later filed through the secretary of state’s website.

“They took photographs of our license plate and of us,” one of the voters wrote, “and then followed us out the parking lot in one of their cars continuing to film.” 

That same day, a woman named Melody Jennings appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast with a pitch: Bannon’s listeners should take photos of voters dropping off their ballots to help monitor for election fraud. Her group, Clean Elections USA, was “gathering across the nation in every drop box state,” she told Bannon. “And we are actually making a difference,” she said. “We’re not intimidating voters, but the mules do not want to be caught on film and that’s what we’re doing.”

The “mules” she’s referring to are “ballot mules,” the subject of 2000 Mules, a documentary by conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza. The film claims that 2,000 people (the “mules”) were hired by shadowy nonprofits to conduct “ballot trafficking” at drop boxes in various swing states. The first teaser for the film features security camera footage of people dropping off multiple absentee ballots at a time. Most states, including Arizona, allow voters to deliver ballots for other members of their family or household. 

The film has been widely debunked. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump called it the “least convincing election-fraud theory yet”; former attorney general Bill Barr laughed off the film’s evidence. Just this week, one of the voters pictured in the film filed a defamation suit against D’Souza for alleging he was a ballot mule.

But the video footage was enough to inspire a wave of conservative activism among Trump supporters. The New York Times has found that the term “ballot mules” was tweeted approximately 326,000 times between when the first teaser was released and August 2022; between November 2020 and the film’s release, the term was tweeted only 329 times. 

Among those who were inspired was Jennings, who began to brainstorm ways to stop the “mules” in April. “Really what inspired me was the idea of 2000 Mules,” she told Steve Bannon on his War Room podcast on October 15. “I hadn’t even seen it yet, but I had seen the teasers … and it just really made me mad.” The film wouldn’t be released until May.

Jennings spent the next six months organizing to watch voters drop off ballots as early voting opened across the country. Much of her efforts were concentrated in Arizona, even though she does not appear to live in the state; voting rights groups that have sued Clean Elections USA have said that, based on public records, she appears to be an Oklahoma resident. And this past week, those efforts culminated in six complaints to the secretary of state and a potential restraining order against her organization. 

The incident on October 17 turned out to be the first of several in which Arizona voters felt harassed by drop box watchers nearby. The secretary of state’s office received more complaints that Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, all with the same general M.O.: a small group of people were taking pictures of voters and their license plates as they dropped off their ballots. Some allegedly wore disguises and tactical gear; some were allegedly armed.

After a 70-year-old voter and his wife dropped their ballots off on October 20th, for example, two individuals took photos of their car and license plate. “I got out and asked what they were doing,” the voter, whose identity hasn’t been released to the public, wrote to the secretary’s office. “They claimed they were taking pictures for ‘election security,” and “continued to film my wife, myself and our car.”

Another voter reported a gray-haired, bearded man with “a large camera on a tripod” recording them as they dropped off their ballot. “As I got to the box, he raised the camera again and filmed me dropping off my ballot in the box,” the voter wrote. “I’m a senior and was very intimidated by his actions.”

These were tactics specifically pushed by Jennings to catch potential malfeasance. While she didn’t return repeated inquiries for comment, TPM found that she’s been posting about her organizing efforts on Truth Social since April.

On April 19, she posted a screenshot of a post by an unidentified user proposing that “no less than 10 patriots” monitor drop boxes before Election Day. “I’m willing to help coordinate this,” Jennings writes. “Who would take this on with me?”

Two days later, she decided to move forward with what she called her “WATCH-BOX INITIATIVE.” “Tired of sitting on the sidelines and ‘tweeting’ about … what’s happening and feeling frustrated that you aren’t part of the solution?” she wrote. “LET’S CHANGE THAT!”

She then began recruiting “willing Patriots” to join her effort. “THE PLAN?? Shifts around the clock, 10 people/shift, posted as each drop box. Who’s in!”

Jennings devoted the next six months to the project, tagging prominent Arizona Republicans like gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and amassing over 35,000 followers in the process. 

On July 10, she posted a photo of herself with Gregg Phillips, the founder of conservative nonprofit True the Vote—which also executive produced 2000 Mules, and first floated some of the theories detailed in it. 

“I had the profound privilege of spending time with this great American hero,” Jennings posted alongside the photo of her and Phillips. She then used the opportunity to plug Clean Elections USA again: “American, we MUST ALL get involved now!! If we don’t, soon we won’t have anything to fight for.”

Votebeat reported on Friday that the evidence gathered by groups such as Clean Elections USA may ultimately be turned over to True the Vote as the group seeks to substantiate its conspiracy theories. 

Clean Elections USA’s project, organized under “#dropboxinitiative2022,” gained enough supporters to stage a “dry run” in July, when a group waited on folding chairs in an Arizona parking lot to catch election fraud, spearheaded by a guy known online as “Captain K.”

Jennings made an appearance on a far-right podcast on July 18, where she claimed the Arizona group was part of Clean Elections USA.

She also provided more insight into her personal philosophy.

“Mostly I’m a minister and I’m a counselor,” she told the hosts. “I help people with psychological warfare in relationships. I mean, most of what I’ve dealt with is mentally abusive relationships, and to me this is just one great big giant mentally abusive situation that’s happening to our country. So, it’s really no different.”

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