‘Things are getting worse’: Far-right voter intimidation in Arizona targeted in federal lawsuit

‘Organised vigilante groups’ fuelled by conspiracy theories are turning away voters, according to complaint

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 25 October 2022 21:27 BST
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Footage captures alleged voter intimidation by group watching ballot box in Maricopa County

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A lawsuit filed in US District Court accuses a far-right activist group of intimidating Arizona voters with the “express purpose” of blocking them from casting their ballots in stark violation of federal civil rights protections.

On 24 October, Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans, which represents roughly 50,000 retirees in the state, and voting rights organisation Voto Latino filed a 64-page complaint with a motion seeking a restraining order against Clean Elections USA and its founder Melody Jennings.

“Things are getting worse,” according to the complaint.

Two armed men in tactical gear in Maricopa County were recently filmed watching over drop boxes where voters can deposit their mail-in or absentee ballots. The following day, armed monitors in “full disguises, tactical ​​gear, and magazine clips” were staking out another drop box in the city of Mesa.

Plaintiffs accuse Clean Election USA of violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which prohibits “conspir[ing] to prevent, by force, intimidation, or threat, any citizen who is lawfully entitled to vote, from giving his support or advocacy in a legal manner.”

“Immediate relief is necessary,” according to the lawsuit. “Defendants’ organized vigilante groups have already turned away voters.”

The lawsuit requests that a federal court judge grant an order that would block the group from gathering near drop boxes and from taking photos or recording videos of voters or people assisting them.

Without that relief, “voters will be subjected to intimidation, threats, and perhaps even force or physical harm at the hands of vigilante drop box watchers,” according to the lawsuit.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has referred at least six incidents of alleged voter intimidation to the US Department of Justice within the last week alone. Early voting in the state ahead of Election Day in 2022 midterm elections began on 12 October.

“Voter intimidation is illegal, and no voter should feel threatened or intimidated when trying to vote,” she said in a statement. “Anyone attempting to interfere with that right should be reported. Voter harassment may include gathering around ballot drop boxes questioning voters, brandishing weapons, taking pictures of people voting and following or chasing voters who are attempting to drop off their ballots, and it can all be considered voter intimidation. It is unacceptable.”

Conspiracy theories about drop boxes have exploded after a dubious film from right-wing filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza alleging “mules” illegally collected ballots and placed them in drop boxes, as well as Donald Trump’s persistent lies that the election was stolen from him and marred by widespread fraud.

Even Arizona’s Republican attorney general Mark Brnovich has asked federal law enforcement to investigate activist group central to the claims in 2,000 Mules.

In a recent interview with Steve Bannon on his War Room podcast, which has repeatedly amplified baseless election conspiracy theories, Ms Jennings said her group has “people ready to go in 18 states to go out in shifts and guard these boxes.”

“We’ve got people out there, on the ground and doing the work,” she said.

In another interview on the podcast, she said the group wants at least 10 volunteers to monitor each drop box, adding that the monitors will be “one of us,” suggesting that volunteers also falsely believe that there is widespread voter fraud manipulating the outcome of elections.

The lawsuit includes several posts from Ms Jennings on her Truth Social account, some of which include photos of her group at ballot drop box locations.

“Someone called in seeing 2 of our people in tactical gear and armed,” she wrote in one post that plaintiffs included in the complaint.

“They will always gear up for a call like that. Thankfully wearing tactical gear and carrying in our country where the right to bear arms is an unalienable right, can and should be respect [sic], especially when the goal is protecting the sovereign rights granted of every American citizen to a free and fair election,” she said. “To me it was all a win/win.”

Clean Elections USA’s website says its mission is to “legally deter people from committing voter fraud” by watching drop box locations.

“We are looking for true patriots to take a stand and watch the drop boxes,” according to the group’s website. “We want to gather video (and live witness evidence) of any ballot tampering that takes place in real time.”

The group seeks volunteers to stake out drop-box locations and “take notes/video of any suspicious activity within what the laws of your state permit”.

On 17 October, a voter sent a complaint to the Arizona secretary of state warning that people were “filming and photographing voters as they approached the drop box outside of the Maricopa County’s Mesa Juvenile Court,” according to the lawsuit.

The alleged drop-box monitors also photographed the voters’ license plate and followed them in a parking lot.

In a separate case, police in Mesa responded to complaints of armed monitors wearing “disguises, tactical ​​gear, and magazine clips.”

In a joint statement, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates and Recorder Stephen Richer said they are “deeply concerned about the safety of individuals who are exercising their constitutional right to vote and who are lawfully taking their early ballot to a drop box.”

“For those who want to be involved in election integrity, become a poll worker or an official observer with your political party,” they said. “Don’t dress in body armor to intimidate voters as they are legally returning their ballots.”

Mark Finchem, a prominent election denier who has refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, is the Republican candidate running for Arizona’s secretary of state.

In a post on Twitter on Monday, he appeared to support the Clean Elections USA effort.

“I think voters should hold mules and fraudsters accountable by recording them,” he wrote. “If they are doing they [sic] right thing, they have nothing to fear.”

Arizona Democratic candidate for secretary of state Adrian Fontes has condemned Mr Finchem and allegations of voter intimidation.

“To the thugs terrorizing people at dropboxes with masks, with weapons: You’re not Batman. You’re not heroes,” he said in a statement. “You’re anti-American bullies who are breaking the law and intimidating voters based on a lie. Someone is going to get killed.”

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