Arizona sheriff steps up security around ballot drop boxes

“Every day I’m dedicating a significant amount of resources just to give people confidence that they can vote safely, and that’s absurd,” Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said during a press conference. Penzone said his office has referred two incidents to district attorneys for possible criminal charges.

Fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of fraud in 2020 and the disappointing movie “2,000 Mules,” drop boxes have become a hotbed of conspiracy theories that claim without evidence that people have illegally collected and deposited ballots in them.

Election security experts and Trump Department of Justice and Homeland Security officials said there was not enough fraud to change the outcome of the 2020 election. Dozens of lawsuits filed after the election were dismissed, many by Trump-appointed judges.

Arizona, the state with the narrowest margin of victory for President Joe Biden two years ago, now has some of the highest-profile midterm races in the country, including a Senate race that could upset the balance of power in Congress.

“Ill-informed vigilantes outside Maricopa County’s drop boxes are not enhancing the integrity of elections,” Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer and Bill Gates, chairman of the county board of supervisors, said in a joint statement over the weekend. “Instead they are leading to complaints of voter intimidation.”

Richer and Gates are both Republicans.

Voters who filed with Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs claim they were filmed and in some cases followed by people guarding the drop boxes.

“As we were getting into our car, two people took pictures of our license plate and our car,” one voter wrote. “I came out and asked what they were doing. They claimed they were taking photos for ‘election security’ and I photographed them to report them to the DD for voter intimidation and harassment.”

Asked at an unrelated event Monday if he was concerned about reported intimidation in states like Arizona and whether the Justice Department would get involved, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the department has an obligation to “ensure a vote of free and fair by all who are qualified to vote and will not allow voters to be intimidated.”

A group of dropbox watchers seen filming a drop box in Maricopa County last week told a local reporter they were with Clean Elections USA, a group that is assembling teams to watch drop boxes in several states this midterm season.

The group’s founder, Melody Jennings, said in a podcast interview last month that she wants 10 volunteers to film drop boxes around the country, in shifts, day and night.

Jennings said she wants volunteers to keep their distance from the vending boxes and obey local laws. But she added that they should sit in a visible place to act as a “human shield” that prevents potential “ballot mules” from coming to drop the boxes.

There is no evidence for the notion that a network of Democratic-linked ballot “mules” conspired to collect and distribute ballots to throw away the boxes, despite claims made in a film about the 2020 election.

Two left-leaning advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Monday against Clean Elections USA alleging the group’s vote-watching activities violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Arizona Alliance for Retirees Americans and Vote Latino are asking the US District Court in Phoenix to stop the group from congregating at the drop-off site and filming voters.

Arizona state Sen. Kelly Townsend, who earlier this year praised and encouraged “all you vigilantes who want to camp in these boxes,” tweeted Monday that wearing tactical gear while viewing the boxes “could considered intimidation of voters”.

“Don’t do it,” Townsend wrote.

Penzone, the sheriff, asked people to respect everyone’s right to vote and leave it to law enforcement officers to investigate suspected violations of the law. He said the intense focus on securing elections has drawn resources away from investigating crimes.

“But we’re going to come and take care of the polls because people have to misbehave if that’s what we have to do to protect democracy,” said Penzone, a Democrat.

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