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Federal judge restricts far-right group from monitoring drop boxes

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A U.S. District Judge in Phoenix on Tuesday limited a far-right group’s ability to surveil ballot boxes in Arizona by limiting photos and videos, ordering members to stay at least 75 feet from ballot boxes and banning the open carry of firearms and the wearing of body armor within 250 feet.

People wearing body armor and carrying weapons have been seen in recent days photographing and filming voters and their vehicles at ballot boxes in several states after former President Trump and his allies urged their supporters to monitor them.

The temporary restraining order prohibits members of Clean Elections USA, led by Melody Jennings, a QAnon adherent who claims the 2020 election was stolen, from filming or photographing voters within 75 feet of a drop box; track who is going to cast ballots; be physically within 75 feet of the boxes or the entrance to a facility where the boxes are located; and shouting or talking to voters casting ballots unless they are 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 loved ones and spouses. Jennings has repeatedly asserted that voters cannot cast more than one ballot.

The move comes after Liburdi, a Trump appointee, 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 the Constitution protected voters. activities of citizens gathering near the polls.

Liburdi said Tuesday that the temporary restraining order balances the 1st Amendment and voting secrecy.

“The balance sheet is [the drop box watchers] can get their information as long as the vehicle, the individual, is outside of that 75 foot limit, but when that person actually leans into the car to grab a ballot or ballots or to put the ballot or ballots in the drop box, they are entitled to a greater degree of privacy by being monitored and videotaped and photographed, somewhat similar to what they would receive in the polling place” , did he declare.

The League of Women Voters of Arizona, which has filed a lawsuit against two far-right groups including Clean Election USA, says organized third-party surveillance of ballot boxes, such as taking videos or photos of people filing ballots and discussing the images on social media, amounts to unlawful intimidation of voters.

“From the primaries until now…potential voter intimidation…in drop boxes has progressed and pivoted us from what we would normally do to educate voters and tell them how to protect their vote,” Pinny Sheoran, president of the League of Women Voters of Arizona, testified on Tuesday.

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

Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans has filed an emergency appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

The Justice Department argued in its filing that it is possible to craft an injunction blocking threatening activity in a manner consistent with the 1st Amendment protections of free speech and assembly.

“While the First Amendment protects expressive conduct and peaceful assembly in general, it provides no protection against threats of harm directed at 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 illegal activity for an individual – voter intimidation – into an authorized activity simply because several people have gathered to engage in it.

The use of secure ballot boxes has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Far-right attention was fueled by the debunked film ‘2000 Mules’, which alleged that supposed ‘voting mules’ tracked by cellphone geolocation data filled drop boxes with fraudulent ballots during 2020 elections.

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

The voter from Mesa, Ariz., 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 who photographed and filmed them were armed, including one person who had a telephoto lens. lens, the witness said, noting that his wife wanted to leave without voting. They feared the group would use the lens to photograph their signatures and phone numbers, which appeared on the ballot envelope, as required by Arizona law. The witness said he hid the ballots under his shirt while he was out of the vehicle. The group shouted at him that they were “chasing the mules” and followed the couple’s car as they tried to leave the parking lot, he said.

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

Jennings, the leader of Clean Elections USA, bragged online that the photos and video of the man had gone viral on social media, saying her group had caught a “mule”. The footage also appeared in news stories nationwide. The witness said that only a handful of his family and friends knew he was the person in the footage and that he feared being identified and harassed.

The Justice Department weighed in on the case on Monday, arguing in a brief that monitoring drop boxes could constitute unlawful voter intimidation.

Such “watchful ballot security measures” likely violate federal voting rights law, the Justice Department said in a “statement of interest.” Monday’s filing was the first time the Justice Department has become involved in a case this midterm election cycle.

The Justice Department filing indicates that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides broad legal protections to voters against coercion and intimidation at every stage of the voting process – including the deposit of ballots in ballot boxes required by local or state law.

“While lawful election monitoring activities can support democratic transparency and accountability, when private citizens form ‘poll security forces’ and attempt to take over the state’s legitimate role of overseeing and monitoring elections , the risk of voter intimidation — and violation of federal law — is significant,” the department said in the filing.

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