PHOENIX — The report landed in the Arizona secretary of state’s online portal Monday night, around dinnertime. It contained an urgent message.
For months in this vast desert swing state, elections officials and democracy advocates have worried that bands of activist observers hunting for fraud will harass and intimidate voters. Citizen watchdogs, organized and freelance, have advertised stakeout events to monitor the goings-ons in parking lots and other drop box locations as voters deposit their early ballots ahead of Election Day.
Monday’s report, which emanated from a drop box in Mesa, just off a major roadway, was the first solid evidence that those fears might come true.
Surveillance video shows a man driving an SUV up to the drop box in an otherwise deserted parking lot. As he returns to his vehicle after depositing papers into the box, he stops, appearing to engage with someone off camera for several seconds. He then gets back into the SUV and reverses. The Post obtained the video through a public records request to Maricopa County elections officials.
By Wednesday, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), who oversees elections here, referred the matter to the U.S. Justice Department and the Arizona attorney general. A spokesperson for the Justice Department confirmed on Thursday that it received the referral but declined to comment.
Brittni Thomason, a spokesperson for the Arizona attorney general, confirmed the office had received Hobbs’s referral, which is under review. “Everyone should feel safe exercising their voting rights,” Thomason said in a statement. Voters who feel threatened while dropping off their ballots should immediately contact police, she said.
Though unobtrusive and few in number here, the drop boxes have become a symbol of mistrust in American elections among supporters of former president Donald Trump.
Trump and his allies nationally and in Arizona have urged supporters to monitor outdoor drop boxes, intended to serve as safe and convenient tools to deposit ballots.
They have also sought to undermine faith and trust in drop boxes, citing the “2000 Mules” film, which purports to use cellphone geolocation data to prove “mules” illegally gathered and submitted ballots in Arizona and other states. The film has been widely discredited, in part because the data is imprecise. Yet it has taken hold here and elsewhere, prompting Republican activists who dispute the accuracy of the 2020 presidential election to launch homegrown patrol and monitoring operations, complete with online sign-up sheets advertised on social media.
State elections officials spoke with the voter who filed the Monday complaint, said Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state. The secretary of state’s office did not identify the alleged harassers, and Solis did not say whether they were affiliated with any organized group.
Hobbs’s office also alerted county officials of another complaint about drop box observers that allegedly took place Wednesday afternoon in downtown Phoenix.
“Camo clad people taking pictures of me, my license plate as I dropped our mail in ballots in the box,” the complaint said. “When I approached them asking names, group they’re with, they wouldn’t give anything. They asked why I wanted to know, well it’s because it’s a personal attack.”
State elections officials alerted county workers of another complaint by someone who came across an image on Reddit of “a vehicle at a polling location that they are trying to monitor for supposed fraud.”
One man monitoring a drop box in downtown Phoenix, told a local ABC television affiliate Wednesday evening that he was with Clean Elections USA Group. Citing “2000 Mules,” the group asks followers “to safeguard our elections with a legal presence at every ballot box in each and every state that has them.”
That group was not named in the secretary of state’s referral to authorities, said a person familiar with the complaint who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly speak about it. Earlier this week, a since-deleted online sign-up page asked volunteers to stake out drop boxes in several Arizona counties. A social media post promoting the sheet said volunteers would “help watch & film” drop boxes with “2 people per box for safety & rotating shifts.”
Bill Gates, chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said there’s a balance between the right of citizens to observe the election process and the rights of voters and elections workers to participate, too, without fear of harassment.
“I believe that citizens observing elections activities are vitally important to the transparency of the system,” Gates, a Republican, said in an interview Thursday. “What I don’t support is when it reaches the point of harassing other voters or elections workers.”
Gates said the board and the county recorder are seeking advice from their attorneys about the types of specific activities that constitute intimidation of voters at drop boxes and of election workers.
Following Trump’s narrow loss in Arizona in 2020, election denialism has become rampant within the Arizona GOP, giving rise to a slate of nominees who have doubled down on debunked assertions of widespread fraud and Trump’s notion of a “stolen election.” Some of those candidates are locked in tight contests, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. Hobbs, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, is running against Lake.
While Hobbs has defended the use of drop boxes as a safe and secure way to ensure ballot access, Lake has encouraged doubts and expressed support for citizen surveillance.
During a hearing convened in May by GOP lawmakers, Lake sat behind leaders of True the Vote, the Texas-based organization that has made uncorroborated claims of rampant election fraud around the country, including in Arizona. A video of the hearing shows Lake applauding and nodding in agreement as the leaders described drop boxes as a tool to allow cheating.
In July, Lake posted on Twitter a photo of a drop box she said was in northern Arizona. “Potential Mules beware: we are watching drop boxes throughout the state,” she said. “Smile … you might be on camera!”
Maricopa County’s two outdoor drop boxes have gained a lot of attention, but voters can also deposit their ballots at 16 drop box locations that are located inside city and town facilities. The county also has opened 12 vote centers where residents can drop off ballots, and voters can mail their ballots.
The 2022 Midterm Elections
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What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.