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Lawsuit Asks Federal Judge to Block ‘Vigilantes’ from Gathering at Ballot Drop Boxes to ‘Intimidate’ Arizona Voters

 
Arizona vigilantes

Two armed vigilantes dressed in tactical gear watch a drop box site in this photograph disseminated by the Maricopa County Elections Department. (Photo via complaint)

Advocacy groups asked a federal judge in Arizona to stop armed “vigilantes” from gathering in front of drop boxes on guard for so-called “ballot mules,” an effort that the plaintiffs characterize as thinly veiled “voter intimidation.”

The non-profit groups Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino filed their lawsuit in the federal court on Monday against an entity going by the name Clean Elections USA, whose founder Melody Jennings appeared on the podcast of recently sentenced ex-White House strategist Steve Bannon.

“At least five times last week, supporters of defendant Clean Elections USA (‘CEUSA’), an organization founded by Defendant Melody Jennings, gathered at ballot drop boxes in Maricopa County with the express purpose of deterring voters — who Defendants irrationally fear are ‘ballot mules’ — from depositing their ballots,” their 40-page complaint begins. “And things are getting worse: on Friday, two of the drop box watchers were armed and wearing tactical gear, and again on Saturday, armed and masked individuals were gathered near drop boxes. Defendants’ activities have already prompted three voter intimidation complaints that have been referred to the Department of Justice, as well as responses and investigations by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department.”

The lawsuit quotes Jennings as stating in a radio interview that the group’s “goal is to be a deterrent.”

“To achieve that goal, Defendants engage in conduct that is clearly meant to intimidate,” the lawsuit continues. “In addition to sending crowds to loom over voters, Defendant Jennings has threatened to use the images and video captured by those crowds to ‘dox’ people; that is posting online a person’s personal information, opening them up to harassment by the general public.”

According to the lawsuit, Jennings openly boasted of those tactics on Bannon’s podcast War Room.

“We can zoom right in we can get your face, so we’ve got you,” Jennings is quoted saying on the show.

In addition to Jennings and her group, the lawsuit names numerous “John Does” as defendants, identified as the “vigilantes” the group marshals for their actions.

“Defendants assert that these vigilante groups are a response to ‘mules,’ a term arising from a debunked conspiracy theory in which a shadowy, sprawling political cabal collects or forges absentee ballots and deposits them in drop boxes,” the lawsuit says. “But such ‘mules’ do not exist, and the people Defendants are intimidating are simply voters.”

Conspiracy theories about people transporting large numbers of illegitimate ballots to drop boxes were popularized by right-wing academic Dinesh D’Souza, whose debunked film 2000 Mules inspired a fit of laughter from ex-Attorney General Bill Barr. The ex-AG could not contain cackles when he told the Jan. 6th Committee why he believed the “mule” theory was bunk.

The Maricopa County Elections Department sent a warning to other would-be “vigilantes” in a tweet on Saturday.

“Uninformed vigilantes outside Maricopa County’s drop boxes are not increasing election integrity,” the complaint states. “Instead they are leading to voter intimidation complaints[…] Don’t dress in body armor to intimidate voters as they are legally returning their ballots.”

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to email requesting comment.

“The department is aware of reports of alleged voter intimidation in Arizona,” the Justice Department said in response to Law&Crime’s inquiry. “We have no further comment at this time.”

The groups who filed the lawsuit allege violations of the Voting Rights Act and Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction-era law designed to deter white supremacist and other groups with a ban on private conspiracies to interfere with civil rights.

“Unless enjoined, Defendants will continue to bully and intimidate lawful Arizona voters — including through using armed presences — who are attempting to do nothing more than vote in accordance with Arizona law,” the complaint states. “Plaintiffs, their constituents and members, and untold numbers of Arizona voters will suffer irreparable harm if the right to vote is imperiled by the same forms of virulent harassment that federal law has prohibited since after the Civil War.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Phoenix-based lawyer Daniel A. Arellano from the firm Herrera Arrellano and attorneys from the Elias Law Firm, founded by prominent Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias.

U.S. District Judge Michael T. Liburdi, a Donald Trump appointee, is presiding over the lawsuit. He scheduled a preliminary status conference today at 10 a.m. Mountain Standard Time.

Read the full complaint here.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks.