Voting Rights Groups Ask Judge To Crack Down On Ballot Drop Box Surveillance In Arizona

Fences surround the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center (MCTEC) in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 25, 2022, to help prevent incidents and pressure on voters at the ballot drop box. (Photo by Olivier TOURON ... Fences surround the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center (MCTEC) in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 25, 2022, to help prevent incidents and pressure on voters at the ballot drop box. (Photo by Olivier TOURON / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER TOURON/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS

Over the last several days, right-wing activists in Arizona — including several armed individuals — began staking out drop boxes throughout the state. On Monday night, voting rights advocates asked a federal judge to put a stop to it. 

Two groups — Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans (AARA), a local organization for retirees, and Voto Latino, a Latino voters’ organization — filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against Clean Elections USA, the right-wing “election integrity” group that rallied supporters to stalk drop boxes in a bid to substantiate conspiracy theories about mass voter fraud.

The complaint alleges that the group’s founder, Melody Jennings, was inspired by “2000 Mules,” a documentary hosted by conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza that claims thousands of so-called “ballot mules” delivered illegal ballots to drop boxes in several states, stealing the 2020 election from Trump. The film draws heavily on conspiracy theories advanced by the activist group True the Vote. 

Inspired by teasers for the film, Jennings took to Truth Social to recruit believers in the Big Lie to monitor drop boxes throughout Arizona, the suit alleges, noting some of her posts on former president Trump’s social media platform.

“Follow the laws. Don’t wear MAGA or other clothing that may be seen as electioneering. Abide by the distance guidelines in ur state. No less than 8 people. Be smart,” she posted on August 11. “Just your presence alone & the mule knowing they will be caught on ur multiple cameras is enough deterrent to make them shrink back into the darkness.”

She signed the post with confetti emojis framing “PARTY AT THE DROP BOX” and a hashtag: #dropboxinitiative 2022”.

The plaintiffs’ alleged in the complaint that Jennings’ supporters intended to do more than “passively observe.” They cited a Truth Social exchange in which someone asked Jennings how to further secure drop boxes beyond just filming voters as they drop their ballots off. Jennings, the suit alleged, replied with, “Friend, while I would love to tell you all the sauce I don’t think that’s wise in an open forum.”

The complaint cites several of Jennings’s posts on the right-wing platform, including one from early October in which she allegedly gathered with her supporters outside of Maricopa County drop boxes to urge them to surveil voters. 

“I am FULLY STOKED that ballot trafficking mules are about to be completely doxxed and put on blast at every drop box across America starting VERY SOON!” the caption reads. “We have the tech. We are the patriot army. We are the storm!”

She then instructs her followers to “join us” while “saving our country together,” alongside a photo she took with True the Vote founder Gregg Phillips, a Clean Elections USA flier saying that they “URGENTLY NEED” volunteers, and a poster from the 1993 Western “Tombstone” edited so that the title says “PATRIOTS ARE GATHERING instead.

“The effect on voters was immediate: over the span of four days, three Maricopa County voters submitted complaints about voter intimidation near both of the county’s two outdoor drop boxes,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Daniel Arellano, wrote in the complaint.

Arellano went on to cite at least five different incidents in which voters allegedly felt intimidated while dropping off their ballots.

The first incident, which occurred last Monday, included a group of people photographing a voter and his wife, accusing them of being a “mule”; the second, on Wednesday, reportedly included “Camo clad people taking pictures of me, my license plate ass I dropped our mail in ballots” at a drop box in Phoenix. 

The third, which took place on Thursday, included “a group of 5 or 6 20-30 yr old men” loitering outside a Mesa drop box who “took pictures of our license plate and our car” for “election security.” According to the Arizona Republic, the group was “photographing people dropping off their early ballots and election staff coming to and from work.”

Jennings has since reframed the first incident as “a man harassing citizens who were lawfully watching drop boxes 75 ft away” on Truth Social.

On October 21, Maricopa County election officials warned of several more individuals caught on camera lurking by the Mesa drop box in “body armor, tactical gear, and disguises.” Local outlets reported that “masked and armed individuals” did the same the next day, until the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office reached the scene.

Jennings has seemingly brushed off claims that she encouraged her supporters to go so far. “I am not responsible for individual’s decisions,” she posted on Truth Social Monday. “Whether I agree or disagree with individuals in how they walk out their patriotism, if they are law abiding, it’s not my call or yours.”

She’s also been sharing photos of a man allegedly covering his license plate to avoid being photographed, which has since made its way through far-right media outlets to Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for Arizona’s secretary of state. It remains unclear whether the man was a voter or a drop box watcher.

Nevertheless, Finchem — a self-proclaimed member of the far-right Oath Keepers and staunch supporter of the Big Lie — boosted the photo on Twitter…and blamed it on George Soros.

Arellano, the attorney for AARA and Voto Latino, argues that their tactic of “gathering in large groups to surveil and intimidate voters is a longstanding one” that violated sections of both the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. 

“Older Arizonans are the most likely to vote by early ballot,” Saundra Cole, president of the AARA, said in a statement, “and must be confident that they can easily and safely deposit their ballots at a drop box.

“We know from hard experience that some people are willing to make accusations of illegal voting based on nothing more than the color of someone’s skin,” Marisa Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, added. 31% of Maricopa County, where the incidents have been concentrated, is comprised of Latino residents.

“The tactics being used by Clean Elections USA aren’t just profoundly dangerous to voters in Arizona,” Kumar continued, “they’re an affront to the fundamental principles of our democracy.”

So, the plaintiffs asked for a temporary restraining order to prevent Jennings’ group from “gathering within sight of drop boxes,” “following, taking photos of, or otherwise recording voters,” and “training, organizing, or directing others to do those activities.”

Clean Elections USA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against Clean Elections USA. The order was requested by the plaintiffs, but the judge has yet to issue one.

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