'Just out here watching boxes': Armed Arizona 'poll watchers' raise fears of right-wing voter intimidation

'Just out here watching boxes': Armed Arizona 'poll watchers' raise fears of right-wing voter intimidation
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Video footage released Friday night showing armed individuals sitting near a ballot drop box in Mesa, Arizona is heightening alarm over right-wing intimidation efforts as early voting kicks off across the United States.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office told a local ABC affiliate that it is investigating several individuals who were watching a Mesa voting location on Friday. The department confirmed that two individuals at the site were armed.

A clip posted to social media by ABC reporter Nicole Grigg shows two masked people dressed in tactical gear observing the ballot drop box.

"This is obviously totally incompatible with liberal democracy and an open society," MSNBC's Chris Hayes wrote in response to the video.

Maricopa County, the largest county in Arizona, emerged as a key election-denial flashpoint in 2020 as Trump supporters baselessly accused local officials of engaging in fraud to deny the former president a second term. President Joe Biden narrowly won the state in 2020, a victory that was subsequently confirmed by a GOP-led review of the vote count.

Two years later, in the midst of the critical midterm election season, Arizona is once again drawing national attention as right-wing groups animated by false fraud narratives mobilize and harass voters. Making matters worse, election deniers are running for key posts in the state, including governor and secretary of state.

Earlier this week, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs referred to the U.S. Justice Department a report from a Mesa voter who said that a group of people gathered near a ballot drop box filmed and photographed him and his wife as they attempted to vote.

The person said he was accused of "being a mule," a reference to a ballot-stuffing conspiracy theory that's become popular in right-wing circles.

Justin Heywood, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Recorder's Office, told VICE that "the county supports the referral to the Department of Justice on this potential case of voter intimidation."

"We have received four reports forwarded by the Arizona Secretary of State's Office," Heywood said. "We encourage any voter who feels threatened, harassed, or intimidated to report it. It is unacceptable and unlawful to impede any voter from participating in the election."

In another complaint that Hobbs forwarded to local election officials, a voter said there were "camo-clad people taking pictures of me, my license plate as I dropped our mail-in ballots in the box."

"When I approached them asking names, group they're with, they wouldn't give anything," the complaint continued. "They asked why I wanted to know, well it's because it's a personal attack."

One individual who was watching a ballot drop box in Maricopa County earlier this week said he was with a group called Clean Elections USA, which declares on its website that it is "asking every patriotic American citizen to join us as we organize to safeguard our elections with a legal presence at every ballot box in each and every state that has them."

The organization's about page features an image of a person submitting a ballot crudely labeled "dead person's vote."

Concerns about right-wing voter intimidation efforts reach well beyond Arizona.

"While poll watching has been an element of electoral transparency since the 1800s, the practice grew in prominence in the 2020 election cycle due to former President Donald Trump's unfounded allegations of voter fraud," the Associated Press reported in August. "Trump's debunked claim that the 2020 presidential election results were fraudulent has motivated thousands of his supporters to scrutinize elections operations nationwide, intensifying concerns of voter intimidation."

"A survey of county elections directors in late May found violations in 15 North Carolina counties, where officials observed poll watchers harassing voters and attempting to enter restricted areas to view confidential voting records," the outlet noted.

In addition to intimidation efforts at polling sites, recently released police bodycam footage shows cops arresting people accused of voter fraud as part of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' newly formed Office of Election Crimes and Security.

While a Miami judge on Friday dropped charges against one 56-year-old man who was arrested for supposed fraud, rights groups have warned that such arrests could have a chilling effect on voter turnout.

As Politico reported, the man "was among 20 mostly Black defendants arrested in August as part of a voter fraud crackdown led by the Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security. The first wave of arrests, which were announced during a high-profile press conference in mid-August, focused on people previously convicted of felonies who voted despite not having their voting rights restored."

"Yet since those arrests, new information was uncovered showing that most of the defendants were told by state officials that they could vote," Politico added. "In each case, the defendants registered to vote without issue. Election officials with the DeSantis administration processed the voter registrations, which caused confusion among the defendants who believed they were legally allowed to vote."

The ACLU of Florida said in a Wednesday statement that "the timing of these arrests and the respective announcement in August, less than a week from the primary, made clear then that the purpose of this office is to investigate and intimidate Florida voters."

In other key states such as Georgia—which could determine control of the U.S. Senate—voters are running up against barriers established by Republican officials and lawmakers as part of a nationwide voter suppression push.

"Under the state's new Election Integrity Act, Georgia citizens can challenge a voter's eligibility on the state's voting rolls an unlimited number of times," The Guardian reported Saturday. "Right-wing groups, spurred by baseless claims that the 2020 election was rife with voter fraud, have mounted thousands of organized challenges across the state, putting even more pressure on the election process for voters, poll workers, and election officials."

"While most have been dismissed already," the newspaper observed, "more challenges cropped up ahead of early voting."

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