Federal judge restricts far-right group from monitoring drop boxes

A U.S. district judge in Phoenix on Tuesday limited a far-right group’s ability to monitor ballot boxes in Arizona by restricting photos and video, ordering members to stay at least 75 feet from the bins and prohibiting the open carrying of firearms and wearing body armor within 250 feet.

In recent days, people wearing body armor and guns have been spotted photographing and filming voters and their vehicles at ballot boxes in several states after former President Trump and his allies urged supporters to monitor them.

The injunction bans members of Clean Elections USA, which is run by Melody Jennings, a QAnon supporter who claims the 2020 election was stolen, from filming or photographing voters within 75 feet of a Dropbox; the following people who cast ballots; be physically within 75 feet of the stalls or an entrance to any facility where the stalls are located; and from yelling at or speaking to voters casting ballots unless they were engaged first. Judge Michael Liburdi also ordered Jennings and Clean Elections USA to post on social media that Arizona law allows people to cast ballots for relatives and spouses. Jennings has repeatedly asserted that voters cannot cast more than one ballot.

The move comes after Liburdi, a Trump-appointed representative, on Friday denied a request for an injunction from the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans to stop Clean Elections USA from monitoring voters casting their ballots, saying that the constitution protects the activities of citizens who gather near ballot boxes.

Liburdi said Tuesday the injunction balances the First Amendment and voting privacy.

“The balance is [the drop box watchers] can retrieve their information as long as the vehicle, the person, is outside of that 75-foot limit, but when that person actually reaches into the car to grab a ballot or ballots or drop the ballot or ballots into Dropbox , they are entitled to a degree of privacy as they will be monitored and videotaped and photographed much like they would receive at the polling site,” he said.

The League of Women Voters of Arizona, which filed the lawsuit against two far-right groups including Clean Election USA, argues that ballot box surveillance was organized by third parties, e.g. B. Taking videos or photos of people casting ballots and discussing the footage on social media amounts to illegal intimidation of voters.

“From the primaries to today…the potential for voter intimidation…at the Dropboxes has evolved, leading us to deviate from what we would normally do to educate voters and tell them how to protect their vote.” says Pinny Sheoran. President of the League of Women Voters of Arizona testified Tuesday.

Earlier this week, the court combined two separate lawsuits filed in Arizona seeking to stop the Arizona chapter of Oath Keepers and Clean Elections USA from monitoring dropboxes in Arizona’s Maricopa and Yavapai counties. A third group, Lions of Liberty, was dropped from the League of Women Voters case after agreeing to stop monitoring Dropboxes.

The Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans has filed a summary appeal with the 9th Circuit.

The Justice Department argued in its filing that it is possible to issue an injunction that blocks threatening activity in a manner consistent with First Amendment protections of freedom of expression and association.

“While the First Amendment protects explicit conduct and peaceful assemblies in general, it does not protect against threats of harm against voters,” the department’s attorneys wrote. “…The First Amendment does not protect the right of individuals to assemble to engage in voter intimidation or coercion. Nor does it turn an unlawful activity for one person – voter intimidation – into a permissible activity just because several people have gathered to engage in it.”

The use of secure ballot boxes has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The attention of the far right was drawn by the debunked film 2000 Mules, which alleged alleged “election mules” tracked by mobile phone geolocation data stuffed mailboxes with fraudulent ballots during the 2020 election.

Liburdi also heard testimony from several people on Tuesday who said they were photographed and filmed as they went to vote, including a witness whose name has not been released publicly out of concerns for his safety.

The voter, from Mesa, Arizona, said he encountered a group of eight to 10 people as he cast his and his wife’s ballots on Oct. 17. Several of the people they photographed and filmed were armed, including one person with a telephoto lens, the witness said, noting his wife wanted to leave without a vote. They feared the group would use the lens to photograph their signatures and phone numbers, which were on the election envelope under Arizona law. The witness said he hid the ballots under his shirt while he was out of the vehicle. The group yelled at him that they were “chasing mules,” and followed the couple’s car as they tried to exit the parking lot, he said.

“My wife was scared,” he said before taking a few moments to calm himself.

Jennings, the chair of Clean Elections USA, boasted online about photos and videos of the man going viral on social media and claimed her group caught a “mule.” The pictures also made national news. The witness said only a handful of family and friends know he is the person in the pictures and he fears identification and harassment.

The Justice Department commented on the case Monday, arguing in a brief that monitoring mailboxes could constitute illegal voter intimidation.

Such “vigilante measures for election security” probably violate the federal electoral law, said the Ministry of Justice in a “declaration of interest”. Monday’s filing marked the first time the Justice Department had interfered in a case during this mid-election cycle.

Justice Department files say the Voting Rights Act 1965 provides voters with comprehensive legal protections from coercion and intimidation at every step of the electoral process — including depositing ballots in mailboxes as provided for by local or state law.

“Although legal election observation activities can support democratic transparency and accountability, there is a risk of voter intimidation — and violation of federal laws — when private individuals form ‘election security forces’ and attempt to assume the state’s legitimate role in election monitoring and surveillance importance,” the department said in the filing.

https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-11-01/justice-dept-says-vigilante-ballot-security-measures-at-drop-boxes-probably-violates-the-federal-voting-rights-act Federal judge restricts far-right group from monitoring drop boxes

Alley Einstein

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