A federal judge Friday refused to bar an activist group from monitoring outdoor ballot boxes in Arizona‘s largest county, despite fears of voter intimidation saying that to do so could violate the its constitutional rights.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Liburdi issued the ruling on Friday.
The issue has taken on national prominence amid reports of armed men patrolling outdoor drop boxes in Maricopa County – the state’s most’s most populous county — and rural Yavapai County as midterm elections near.
Last week, apparently armed men positioned themselves close to a drop box in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix. They wore tactical gear which reportedly included ballistic vests.
They left when police arrived.
But their presence triggered legal action as activists sought to prevent intimidation of voters.
Aziona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, has called on voters to immediately report any intimidation to police and file a complaint with his office.
The state’s secretary of state this week said her office had received six cases of potential voter intimidation to the state attorney general and the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as a threatening email sent to the state elections director.
A handout photo by Maricopa County Elections shows two armed individuals dressed in tactical gear watching a drop box in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona
Their presence triggered a string of complaints and a legal effort to bar watcher groups
State law requires candidates, their campaigns and monitors to stay at least 75 feet from voting locations.
‘Plaintiffs have not provided the court with any evidence that defendants’ conduct constitutes a true threat,’ the judge wrote.
‘On this record, defendants have not made any statements threatening to commit acts of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.”
The state is one of the centers of tussles over voter rights and election fraud.
President Joe Biden won the divided state by only 10,000 votes, ending a run of decades of Republican victories.
The result generated a string of conspiracy theories about how it could have happened.
But multiple investigations, including a partisan ‘audit’ of Maricopa County by Cyber Ninjas, a company hired by Republicans, found no widespread fraud in the 2020 vote.
This time around, those conspiracies have spawned multiple efforts to monitor voting.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona vowed to prosecute any violations of federal law but said local police were in charge of ‘front line in efforts to ensure that all qualified voters are able to exercise their right to vote free of intimidation or other election abuses.’
‘We will vigorously safeguard all Arizonans’ rights to freely and lawfully cast their ballot during the election,’ the office said Wednesday.
‘As the several election threat-related cases pending federal felony charges from alleged criminal activity arising out of our State show, acts which cross the line will not go unaddressed.’
In the first case, the groups Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino on Wednesday asked Liburdi to bar members of a group calling itself Clean Elections USA from gathering within sight of drop boxes in Maricopa County, from following voters, and from taking photos and videos of them and their cars.
ave Brehmer and Chad Maier drop their ballot for the upcoming midterm elections in the drop box near the Maricopa County Juvenile Court Center in Mesa, Arizona
The attorney for Clean Elections USA said that such a broad restraining order would be unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, a state agency, voted unanimously Thursday to have its legal counsel seek a court order if necessary to stop the monitoring group from using the ‘Clean Elections’ name. The commission created in 1998 to provide voters with nonpartisan elections information said it has been barraged with angry calls from people confusing it with the monitoring group.
The second lawsuit that was folded into the first case involves ballot boxes in
Aizonsa’s Yavapai County, where the League of Women Voters alleges voters have been intimidated by Clean Elections USA, along with The Lions of Liberty and the Yavapai County Preparedness team, which are associated with the far-right anti-government group Oath Keepers.
Luke Cilano, a Lions of Liberty board member, said the organization had dropped its ‘Operation Drop Box’ initiative on Wednesday ‘due to being lumped in with people who don’t adhere to the law and our rules of engagement.’
Cilano said the ‘official stand down order’ to all members was in response to the pending litigation.
‘Our goal is not to scare people and keep them from voting,’ he said. ‘We love our country very much.’
Cilano said The Lions of Liberty is in no way associated with Clean Elections USA. He said his group is connected to the Yavapai County Preparedness Team, but the team was not involved in ballot box monitoring.
Similar groups around the United States have embraced a film that has been discredited called ‘2000 Mules’ that claims people were paid to travel among drop boxes and stuff them with fraudulent ballots during the 2020 presidential vote.
There’s no evidence for the notion that a network of Democrat-associated ballot ‘mules’ has conspired to collect and deliver ballots to drop boxes, either in the 2020 presidential vote or in the upcoming midterm elections.