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Masked poll watchers are showing up at voting sites with handguns and Kevlar vests

The Boston Globe 10/27/2022 Ryan Teague Beckwith and Margaret Newkirk
Lynnette, 50 (left), and Nicole, 52, watch a ballot drop box while sitting in a parking lot in Mesa, Arizona, on October 24, 2022. Other agitator election deniers are filming voters dropping off ballots, photographing their license plates, and confronting them in parking lots outside early voting locations in Arizona and Michigan. © BASTIEN INZAURRALDE Lynnette, 50 (left), and Nicole, 52, watch a ballot drop box while sitting in a parking lot in Mesa, Arizona, on October 24, 2022. Other agitator election deniers are filming voters dropping off ballots, photographing their license plates, and confronting them in parking lots outside early voting locations in Arizona and Michigan.

(Bloomberg) — Two people armed with handguns and wearing tactical military gear, balaclavas masking their face, and the license plates on their cars covered, stood watch over a ballot drop box during early voting last week in Mesa, Arizona.

This scene, reported by the Maricopa County Elections Department on Friday, is one that some elections officials and law enforcement fear might spread as believers in Donald Trump’s false claims that a second term as president was stolen from him through voter fraud amp up activity ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

Other agitator election deniers are filming voters dropping off ballots, photographing their license plates, and confronting them in parking lots outside early voting locations in Arizona and Michigan, according to Marcia Johnson-Blanco, who is overseeing election protection efforts for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

At least three groups that make baseless claims of widespread voter fraud are encouraging untrained volunteers to engage in the effort. One effort, funded by Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s first national security adviser and a former Army general in Iraq 20 years ago, is specifically recruiting military veterans and police officers to monitor voting.

For now, the agitators’ efforts are sporadic, and elections officials stress that most voters are unlikely to be affected in the hopes of tamping down any public fears about voting in person.

But they are preparing. Local police are being trained on state and federal voter intimidation laws. Voting rights groups are advising the public on how to report incidents, civil rights groups are filing lawsuits and US attorneys around the country are appointing staff prosecutors to keep an eye on threats and intimidation.

A coalition of left-leaning groups called Election Defenders has also been training volunteers in eight states on how to counter efforts to intimidate voters and elections officials from early voting through final certification.

Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed at a press briefing Monday that the Justice Department would fight voter intimidation.

“The Justice Department has an obligation to guarantee a free and fair vote by everyone who’s qualified to vote and will not permit voters to be intimidated,” he said.

The efforts are already leading to lawsuits. The Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino sued in federal court, arguing that the election denial group Clean Elections USA encouraged voter intimidation at drop boxes in Maricopa County, while the League of Women Voters filed a separate lawsuit.Clean Elections USA founder Melody Jennings did not respond to a request for comment, but she has posted on the conservative Truth Social website that at least one of the people photographed in Mesa was not associated with her group. In the past, however, Jennings has said that poll watchers should gather in large groups to be a “deterrent.”

The incidents come as claims that electoral losses are naturally the result of fraud has become standard among Republican candidates, with 225 candidates for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, or Congress on the ballot who have either baselessly said the 2020 election was stolen or cast doubt on its legitimacy.

They are being fueled by false conspiracy theories shared online about widespread voter fraud, especially at drop boxes, as well as a debunked film from right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza, whom Trump pardoned for making illegal campaign contributions. Elections officials have long allowed partisan observers at polling places, but they are typically required to undergo training and wear identifying badges and are barred from talking directly to voters. Local political parties usually name the poll watchers, and they can be removed for violating the rules.

But the freelance effort is different. The participants are not vetted by state or local officials, have no approved training on voter intimidation laws and are gathering around unstaffed drop boxes, a practice that election deniers call “tailgating.”

They are also being called to action by groups that have embraced false claims about voting, including Clean Elections USA, Audit the Vote and the Flynn-linked group One More Mission, as well as election denier candidates like Arizona Secretary of State nominee Mark Finchem, who tweeted out a call for supporters to “watch all drop boxes” in order to “save the Republic.”

“Ballot drop boxes are open for much longer than polling places. They aren’t staffed and they are often placed in locations that make them vulnerable for people to act in a way that you would probably not see in a polling place,” said Suzanne Almeida, who is heading a voter intimidation hotline for the advocacy group Common Cause.

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