2022 Election: Judge puts narrow limit on ballot box monitoring amid intimidation concerns

Ahead of Election Day, reports of alleged acts of voter intimidation emerged in Arizona.

The incidents have reportedly been referred to the FBI and/or the U.S. Department of Justice.

Latest Updates

November 1

A federal judge agreed to put limits on a group monitoring outdoor ballot drop boxes in Arizona, but within narrow confines that would not affect its members' constitutional right to gather.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Liburdi said he would issue a temporary restraining order requested by the League of Women Voters of Arizona against Clean Elections USA. It will also apply to The Lions of Liberty and the Yavapai County Preparedness team, which are associated with the far-right anti-government group Oath Keepers.

Those groups or anyone working with them will be barred from filming or following anyone within 75 feet (23 meters) of a ballot drop box or the entrance to a building that houses one. They also cannot speak to or yell at individuals within that perimeter unless spoken to first. It is the standard distance maintained around polling sites under Arizona law, but it has typically never applied to ballot drop boxes.

The order also prohibits members of the groups or agents working on their behalf from carrying firearms or wearing body armor within 250 feet (76 meters) of a drop box.

"It is paramount that we balance the rights of the defendant to engage in their constitutionally protected First Amendment activity with the interest in the plaintiffs and in voters casting a vote free of harassment and intimidation," Liburdi said.

October 28

A federal judge Friday refused to bar a group from monitoring outdoor ballot boxes in Arizona’s largest county where watchers have shown up armed and in ballistic vests, saying to do so could violate the monitors’ constitutional rights.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Liburdi said the case remained open and that the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans could try again to make its argument against a group calling itself Clean Elections USA. A second plantiff, Voto Latino, was removed from the case.

Local and federal law enforcement have been alarmed by reports of people, including some who were masked and armed, watching 24-hour ballot boxes in Maricopa County — Arizona’s most populous county — and rural Yavapai County as midterm elections near. Some voters have complained alleging voter intimidation after people watching the boxes took photos and videos, and followed voters.

Arizona law states electioneers and monitors must remain 75-foot (23-meter) from a voting location.

Liburdi issued his ruling two days after a hearing on the first of two similar cases. The attorney for Clean Elections USA had argued that such a broad restraining order would be unconstitutional.

A second lawsuit involving charges of voter intimidation at drop boxes in Arizona’s Yavapai County has since been merged with the first one.

Sheriff’s deputies are providing security around the two outdoor drop boxes in Maricopa County after a pair of people carrying guns and wearing bulletproof vests showed up at a box in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa. The county’s other 24-hour outdoor drop box is at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in downtown Phoenix, which is now surrounded by a chain link fence.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, has called on voters to immediately report any intimidation to police and file a complaint with his office. Arizona’s secretary of state this week said her office has 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.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona has vowed to prosecute any violations of federal law but said local police were at the "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."

Meanwhile, the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, an Arizona 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 Arizona’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.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

October 27

A federal judge in Arizona said he hopes to decide by Friday whether to order members of a group to stop monitoring outdoor ballot drop boxes in the Phoenix area in an effort that has sparked allegations of voter intimidation.

The groups Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino asked U.S. District Judge Michael Liburdi during a Wednesday hearing to prevent members of Clean Elections USA from gathering within sight of drop boxes in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, and from following voters and taking photos and videos of them and their cars.

The attorney for Clean Elections USA said that such a broad restraining order would be unconstitutional.

Liburdi said he hoped to issue a decision by Friday but could continue to weigh the matter into the weekend.

The League of Women Voters filed a similar suit Tuesday in federal court in Arizona, alleging that Clean Elections USA is intimidating voters.

That suit also alleges that the groups Lions of Liberty and the Yavapai County Preparedness Team, which are associated with the far-right anti-government group Oath Keepers, have undertaken their own effort to watch ballot boxes and film voters in Arizona’s Yavapai County.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

October 26

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is asking anyone who encounters any intimidating incidents at ballot drop boxes to call police, and/or file a complaint with the attorney general's election integrity unit at https://www.azag.gov/complaints/election.

"Regardless of intent, this type of misguided behavior is contrary to both the laws and values of our state," Brnovich remarked.

October 25

The Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino are seeking a temporary restraining order against Clean Elections USA, claiming that the group is intimidating voters at ballot drop-off locations. A hearing on the matter is now scheduled for Oct. 26.

Separately, officials with an organization named Protect Democracy say they filed a lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Arizona in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.

The lawsuit, according to officials with Protect Democracy, targets a number of organizations and individuals, including Clean Elections USA and two organizations that the lawsuit claims are related to the Oath Keepers of Yavapai County. The organizations are identified as Lions of Liberty and the Yavapai County Preparedness Team.

The group alleges, in the lawsuit, that the organizations and individuals named have been "actively planning, coordinating, and recruiting for widespread campaigns to surveil and intimidate Arizona voters at ballot drop boxes and baselessly accuse them—either directly or indirectly—of committing voter fraud, and spread false information about legally valid forms of voting."

"No voter should have to confront armed individuals or be baselessly accused of fraud just for exercising their fundamental right to vote," League of Women Voters of Arizona President Pinny Sheoran said, in the statement.

October 24

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office held a news conference about the reported acts of voter intimidation happening at ballot drop boxes across the Phoenix area.

The news conference took place on the same day early voting ballots start to be tabulated at the Mraicopa County Election Headquarters in Downtown Phoenix. 

"We celebrate watchers. We welcome watchers, but there's a constructive way to do it and a not-so-terribly-positive way to do it," said Maricopa County Recorder Richer, during the news conference. "Anything that looks like it's intimidating a voter, your time, your energy, can be better spent."

"Everyday, folks should be looking in the mirror and asking yourselves how you're behaving out there," said Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone. "If your intentions are to draw focus on who you are and what you're doing, and try to passively intimidate others trying to just cast a vote, then shame on you."

Read More: Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone steps up security around ballot drop boxes

October 23

Ruth Costner was dropping off her ballot in Mesa on Oct. 23 and says she just wants to be left alone.

"I have not experienced that today, but I feel like it's my civil right, my citizen's right to vote. So leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone. Let me do what I have the right to do," she said.

David Lieb says he doesn't agree with people watching the boxes, but sort of gets it.

"I’ve seen the stuff on Twitter and social media, and I don’t really understand why they feel the need, I guess I kind of understand why they’re doing it, but I don’t agree with why they’re doing it. I think the only reason to stand out here and hover over people as they’re voting is to try to influence their vote," Lieb said.

October 22

A joint statement by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates and county recorder Stephen Richer was released about claims of voter intimidation by two armed individuals dressed in tactical gear at some ballot drop boxes.

The two men were caught on security footage and the elections department shared still images.

The statement reads, in full, "We 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.

Uninformed vigilantes outside Maricopa County's drop boxes are not increasing election integrity. Instead they are leading to voter intimidation complaints.

Although monitoring and transparency in our elections is critical, voter intimidation is unlawful.

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

No matter how you choose to vote in Arizona, you should feel safe doing so. We will do everything possible in our roles to protect voters, election workers, and our free and fair elections."

Maricopa County has 12 Vote Centers and 16 drop boxes inside city and town facilities. More will open as Election Day nears.

"These are secure locations staffed by election workers or city and town employees. Voters also have the option to return an early ballot by mail. The last recommended day to return a ballot in the mail is November 1. Election Day is November 8. Voters can find all Maricopa County ballot drop off sites at Locations.Maricopa.Vote," the email said.

One incident that happened on Oct. 22 involved a confrontation between a few election watchers, including some armed watchers and a woman who said she decided to come and watch the watchers.

Four sheriff's deputes were at the scene, trying to keep the peace.

"This kind of voter intimidation is unacceptable in a democracy, and I'm there to push back and stand up for everybody's right to vote without fear of retaliation or intimidation," said the woman. She wants to remain anonymous fearing a backlash, but she said she is an activist who wanted to get involved during this election cycle.

A scuffle took place when the woman tried to take a flag off one of the covered licensed plates belonging to a watcher.

"I think its ironic that people who are intimidating voters and videotaping their faces and license plates are sitting there with masks and their license plates covered up," said the woman. "I'm really hoping that our better angels will win out, and that we'll all be rational and peaceful about this."

We were not able to locate the four armed people who were in the area for their perspective.

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Armed men in tactical gear outside of a ballot drop box in Maricopa County. Photo courtesy of the Maricopa County Elections Department

October 21

We obtained documents concerning complaints filed for two incidents.

One of the incidents happened on Oct. 20, also at a ballot drop box located at the Mesa Juvenile Court. In this incident, A person and their wife parked their car to individually drop their ballots in the drop boxes located in the area when a group of five or six men, described as being between the age of 20 and 30, was standing in the parking lot.

As the two put their ballots in the drop box and walked back to their car, two people took pictures of their car and license plate.

I got out and asked what they were doing. They claimed they were taking pictures for ‘election security,’ and I took pictures of them to report them to the [Department of Justice] for voter intimation and harassments. As we were pulling out, [they] continued to film my wife, myself and our car," read a portion of the complaint.

The other complaint concerned an incident that allegedly happened on Oct. 19, in the area of the Maricopa County Elections headquarters.

"Camo-clad people taking pictures of me, my license plate as I dropped our mail-in ballots in the box," a portion of the complaint read. "When I approached them asking names [and the] group they're with, they wouldn't give anything."

The two incidents mentioned above were forwarded to the FBI and the Department of Justice.

October 20

We reported on an incident that happened at a ballot drop box at the Mesa Juvenile Court on the evening of Oct. 17.

According to the report, a voter claimed he and his wife were followed, filmed, and called a ‘mule' by a group of people. The two were followed out of the parking lot.

Elections officials speak out

Since the 2020 Presidential Election, there are people who believe, without evidence, that there was widespread voter fraud in that year's election. In the aftermath of Donald Trump's failed re-election bid in 2020, crowds flocked to the Maricopa County Election Office, with some carrying cameras, megaphones and even weapons.

Fast forward to 2022, there have been a few reports of people with cameras pointed at ballot drop boxes.

While some say they are working to ensure election integrity, others have criticized such acts as voter intimidation.

However, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer says knowing when election integrity becomes voter intimidation is not always cut-and-dry.

"We will investigate every single alleged occurrence, but we have not come up with the legal framework by which to review that at this time," said Richer.

Some voters say they are not bothered by what has allegedly happened.

"I already made my decision, so whatever they do doesn’t bother me," said one voter, identified only as ‘Kevin.’

Ballots can be dropped off at a drop box until 7:00 p.m. on Election Night.

"They are allowed to drop off their own ballot, and ballots of family or household members, and the people doing the watching have no idea if those people are dropping off any other ballots than their own," said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.

Hobbs is the Democratic Party candidate for governor, running against Republican Kari Lake to succeed incumbent governor Doug Ducey, who cannot run again due to term limits.

Continuing 2022 Election Coverage

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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