Monitors at Arizona ballot drop boxes draw complaints of voter intimidation
PHOENIX — In May, following a presentation to lawmakers from True The Vote — an organization whose faulty research was behind the debunked "2000 Mules" film — Arizona state Sen. Kelly Townsend had some encouraging words for residents who wanted to act on baseless election fraud claims.
"I have been so pleased to hear of all of you vigilantes out there that want to camp out at these drop boxes, right? So do it. Do it," the Republican said to applause from the audience. "We put the word out today that if you're going to come and be like a mule and stuff ballot boxes this time, you're going to get caught."
With early voting now underway in Arizona, it's clear that many people in this swing state have followed through on such calls to action.
An incident at a drop box in the Phoenix suburbs — where voters were filmed, photographed and followed by car out of a parking lot — was referred to the U.S. Department of Justice by the Arizona secretary of state's office.
A separate complaint was filed last week, after "camo clad people" took pictures of a voter and their vehicle's license plate at Maricopa County election headquarters.
And on Friday, Maricopa County sheriff's deputies responded to two men, armed and dressed in tactical gear, standing watch at a drop box in Mesa.
As of Monday, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs had referred a total of six potential voter intimidation complaints near ballot drop boxes to law enforcement.
"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," Hobbs said in a statement. "It is unacceptable."
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone told reporters on Monday that he's had to devote "considerable" resources to monitor those activities at drop boxes, "just to give people confidence that they can cast a vote safely. And that is absurd."
The incidents even caught the attention of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who said Monday that the Justice Department "will not permit voters to be intimidated" during the midterm elections.
Drop box vigilantism isn't limited to Maricopa County in Arizona. For instance, two groups in rural northern Yavapai County had similar plans to monitor drop boxes.
Technically, as long as people stay at least 75 feet away from the drop boxes, there's nothing illegal about filming or monitoring the sites.
At a press conference last week, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer said officials are evaluating what can and cannot be done about drop box observers. "We have not come up with the legal framework by which we are evaluating that yet," he said.
At least some of the drop box watchers have claimed they are with Clean Elections USA, a national organization promoted by former Trump aide Steve Bannon. A federal lawsuit filed Monday seeks an order barring the group's members from following and taking photos or videos of voters at drop boxes.
Election conspiracy theorists like Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Arizona, have defended the vigilantism — and accused Secretary of State Hobbs, a Democrat running for governor, and reporters of "intimidating the ballot drop box watchers."
"WATCH ALL DROP BOXES. PERIOD. SAVE THE REPUBLIC," he tweeted last week.
But Maricopa County election officials, having faced flawed reviews and scrutiny since the 2020 election, have seen enough.
"Uninformed vigilantes outside Maricopa County's drop boxes are not increasing election integrity," Richer and Maricopa County Board Chair Bill Gates — both Republicans — said in a joint statement. "Instead they are leading to voter intimidation complaints."
"Although monitoring and transparency in our elections is critical, voter intimidation is unlawful," they added.
Gates noted that it's not just voters who feel harassed and intimidated. Election workers have been photographed outside county headquarters, an issue Gates said occurred back in the August primary, too.
"Regardless of what the intent is of these people who are taking pictures of our election workers, they're harassing people," he said. "They're not helping, you know, further the interests of democracy."
As for Townsend, the GOP state senator who encouraged vigilantism over the summer, she's since distanced herself from the efforts on the ground in Arizona.
"To be clear, I never said to intimidate anyone," Townsend tweeted on Monday.
"I should not have to say this but wearing tactical gear while watching a ballot drop box could be considered voter intimidation," she added. "Don't do it."
Copyright 2022 KJZZ. To see more, visit KJZZ.