Armed ‘vigilantes’ and conspiracy theorists threaten to disrupt midterm elections: ‘We are watching’

Voting rights groups, federal lawsuits and the Justice Department are sounding the alarm over a surge of voter suppression campaigns in closely watched states, Alex Woodward reports

Thursday 27 October 2022 16:54 BST
Federal lawsuits allege armed ‘vigilantes’ are harassing voters in Arizona
Federal lawsuits allege armed ‘vigilantes’ are harassing voters in Arizona (Maricopa County Elections Department/Getty)

A pair of federal lawsuits in Arizona allege far-right “vigilantes” and Republican-aligned activist groups have waged a “campaign of intimidation” against voters casting their ballots in government drop boxes throughout the state.

In Michigan, a far-right group launched “Operation Overwatch” to monitor the polls and hunt down perceived election crimes. A press release announcing the campaign warned voters “we are watching” 10 times.

And in Pennsylvania, right-wing conspiracy theorists who continue to doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election are among thousands of people joining the ranks of poll observers this year, a multi-million dollar recruitment campaign backed by the Republican National Committee.

The latest calls to action join an army of election observers – fuelled by bogus claims of widespread election fraud and Donald Trump’s ongoing false narrative that the presidency was stolen from him – preparing for Election Day and its aftermath, and aiming to do what Trump and his allies failed to do in 2020.

More than 40 per cent of voters are now worried about threats of violence or intimidation at the ballot box this year, according to polling from Reuters.

The same survey found that 67 per cent of voters are worried about post-election violence.

An elections task force at the US Department of Justice also found that all three states are hotbeds for threats against election workers.

Meanwhile, Republican state lawmakers have advanced dozens of bills to hand control of elections to GOP-dominated state legislatures, while a growing “grassroots” movement among Republican-aligned groups and right-wing activists has urged supporters to embed themselves into election administration at the local level.

“We’re seeing similar types of threats today” compared to the lead up to 2020 elections, according to Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, speaking to the US Conference of Mayors on 23 October.

But threats to 2022 elections are coming from a “very ground-up, localized effort,” she said.

“Focus on county over country. Capture your local county, then several of them, then maybe your state,” said Ms McCord, quoting from a post on right-wing social network Gab.

“We’ve seen a GOP candidate in Idaho have an effigy hung in his yard,” she said. “We’ve seen a Democratic candidate in eastern Washington be shot with a BB gun while putting up signs. … These are very localized efforts. They’re very threatening, and they continue to grow.”

‘Things are getting worse’

An anonymous group named “Ben Sent Us” recently sent threatening letters to Democratic officials in Arizona with a warning: “We are watching you.”

“They will be locating your homes, your social media profiles and pictures and posting them online,” according to the letter. Judges complicit in what the group perceived as election fraud “will be considered a traitor and dealt with accordingly, as will you,” the letter reads.

Ben Sent Us is mentioned several times in two federal lawsuits from Arizona groups, alleging masked and armed “vigilantes” and other far-right activists are baselessly accusing voters of committing fraud and photographing them and their vehicles in an effort to stop them from casting their ballots.

According to a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters on 25 October, the defendants spent months “actively planning, coordinating, and recruiting for widespread campaigns to surveil, intimidate, and harass Arizona voters at ballot drop boxes, baselessly accuse them – directly or indirectly – of committing voter fraud, and spread false information about legally valid forms of voting.”

An individual in tactical gear was pictured near a ballot drop box in Mesa, Arizona on 21 October.
An individual in tactical gear was pictured near a ballot drop box in Mesa, Arizona on 21 October. (Maricopa County Elections Depart)

Another lawsuit from Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and voting rights organisation Voto Latino warns that “voters will be subjected to intimidation, threats, and perhaps even force or physical harm at the hands of vigilante drop box watchers” without a court’s intervention.

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

Right-wing groups Lions of Liberty and the Yavapai County Preparedness Team, an Arizona offshoot of the far-right anti-government militia group the Oath Keepers, have organised “Operation: Dropbox” to assemble “volunteers and co-conspirators in the surveillance of drop boxes in Arizona and the monitoring and recording of drop box voters,” according to the lawsuit from the League of Women Voters.

Jim Arroyo, the former vice president of Arizona’s chapter of the Oath Keepers, has encouraged volunteers to wear their Oath Keepers gear while monitoring drop boxes, according to the complaint.

“Your shirts and hats are what tell the world you’re not ashamed to be an Oath Keeper, or afraid of the government just because of that crap that happened on [6 January, 2021], which was completely staged,” he told the group, according to the lawsuit.

Several members of the Oath Keepers face charges of seditious conspiracy against the government for their roles in the Capitol attack.

Clean Elections USA and its founder Melody Jennings are named in both lawsuits, which accuse defendants 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.”

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.

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”.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has referred at least six incidents of alleged voter intimidation to federal law enforcement within the last week alone. Early voting in the state began on 12 October.

“Anyone attempting to interfere with that right should be reported,” the state’s top election official said in a statement.

The US Attorney’s office in Arizona is considering “several federal felony charges from alleged criminal activity” in the state.

“We have a long history of civil dialogue and civic engagement here in Arizona, and we will vigorously safeguard all Arizonans’ rights to freely and lawfully cast their ballot during the election,” according to a statement on 26 October.

Conspiracy theorists and far-right activists have conflated voters using drop boxes with “mules” illegally hoarding ballots, or believe all forms of voting with absentee or mail-in ballots are ripe for fraud or illegitimate, echoing baseless claims from Dinesh D’Souza’s film 2,000 Mules.

Arizona law allows caregivers to deposit several absentee ballots at a time to people to whom they provide care, including people in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and similar residences.

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 24 October, 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.”

Mark Finchem is the Republican candidate for Arizona’s secretary of state.
Mark Finchem is the Republican candidate for Arizona’s secretary of state. (Getty Images)

Mr Finchem’s Democratic opponent Adrian Fontes suggested that armed demonstrators harassing voters at drop boxes could end up getting someone killed.

“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.”

‘The exhaustion is real’

On his podcast, Bannon said right-wing poll watchers and vote challengers will “challenge any vote, any ballot, and you’re going to have to live with it.”

“We don’t care if you don’t like it,” he said “We don’t care if you’re going to run around and light your hair on fire. That’s the way this is going to roll.”

Partisan poll watchers have been a feature of American democracy for decades, but there is a growing movement to install far-right activists tied to a “Stop the Steal” campaign that was central to the Capitol riot and local efforts to challenge election outcomes.

During a training session with election-denying Pennsylvania group Audit the Vote PA, an official with the Republican National Committee told participants that the group filled 6,000 poll watcher positions in the state this year, compared to 1,000 in 2020, according to Reuters.

Liz Cheney says 'no one' should vote for 'election deniers' in midterms

Michigan Grassroots Alliance, supported by an array of conspiracy theorists including Mike Lindell and Trump attorney Jenna Ellis, announced its own poll-watching campaign: “Operation Overwatch.”

“Now that we know how the integrity of the 2020 election was subverted, individuals and organizations dedicated to election integrity will now be proactive in their efforts to ensure lawful elections,” according to a statement from the group.

The Election Integrity Network, which has held election observer training sessions across the US, is funded by the Conservative Partnership Institute, a Washington group with ties to the former president.

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is listed as its “senior partner”. Mr Trump’s political action committee Save America gave the group $1m last year, according to campaign finance records.

Election officials and voting rights organisations have repeatedly warned that false claims of fraud and election-related misinformation deliberately casting doubt on the nation’s electoral process risk undermining confidence in elections and could pose a grave threat to American democracy.

In the aftermath of 2020 elections, Mr Trump’s legal team amplifies baseless claims that machines operated by Dominion Voting Systems had compromised millions of votes and manipulated the outcome, among several unsubstantiated conspiracy theories surrounding the company.

Dominion employees and their families were “put into danger” with the spread of false claims against them, the company’s CEO John Poulos told CBS News.

“Their lives have been upended and all because of lies,” he said. “It was a very clear calculation that they knew they were lies. And they were repeating them and endorsing them.”

Dominion has filed eight lawsuits seeking more than $10bn in damages against Fox News and other networks and personalities who have amplified lies about the company.

The proliferation of election conspiracy theories and disinformation has also made election work unsustainable for hundreds of workers, opening a vacuum for right-wing activists that could ignite election chaos.

One in six election workers have been threatened because of their job, according to a 2022 survey from the Brennan Center for Justice, revealing the “damaging” and “sustained” attacks against people who help run the nation’s elections and put the business of “elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion and our demo­cratic system in seri­ous danger.”

A poll worker handles ballots for midterm elections in Maricopa County, Arizona on 25 October.
A poll worker handles ballots for midterm elections in Maricopa County, Arizona on 25 October. (AFP via Getty Images)

More than half of poll respondents reported harassment on social media, on the phone, or while on the job.

One in five workers said they might quit before 2024. Among those who said they plan to leave their jobs before 2024 elections, one-third cited political attacks against a process that they know is fair and honest as one of central reas­ons for leav­ing.

Election officials have left their jobs in 50 out of 67 counties in Pennsylvania because of threats, harassment and intimidation against them and their families.

“The exhaustion is real for election officials,” the Brennan Center’s Lawrence Norden told The New York Times.“The partisanship and polarization around elections – and election officials themselves – is a strain and a threat to our elections.”

Federal law enforcement agencies have reviewed hundreds of threats nationwide against people involved with elections. Nearly 60 per cent of threats observed by election workers were in states that experienced election challenges from Mr Trump and GOP allies, according to a report from a Justice Department task force.

A staff report from the House Oversight Committee in August found that “bad actors are undermining faith in our democracy by spreading lies about elections for their own partisan and financial gain,” according to committee chair Carolyn Maloney.

The report includes several graphic examples of the threats to election workers.

After his home address was leaked, one election official in Texas received threats telling him that he would be hunted down, according to the report. Another message threatened to “hang him when convicted for fraud and let his lifeless body hang in public until maggots drip out of his mouth.”

State and local officials across the US have issued advisories to warn voters of threats of intimidation at the polls, and to ensure voters will be protected when they cast their ballots.

The Justice Department also has launched an Election Day programme to combat “complaints of voting rights concerns, threats of violence to election officials or staff and election fraud.”

“Every citizen must be able to vote without interference or discrimination and to have that vote counted in a fair and free election,” according to a statement from Ohio’s First Assistant United States Attorney Michelle M Baeppler. “Election officials and staff must be able to serve without being subject to unlawful threats of violence.”

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