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Armed Vigilantes in Arizona Are Just the Tip of the Voter-Intimidation Iceberg

It’s not just happening in Arizona. GOP vigilantes are working to intimidate voters across the U.S.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather outside of Trump Tower on March 8, 2021, in midtown Manhattan, New York City.

Part of the Series

This week, a group of “election monitors” in Arizona, called Clean Elections USA, garnered national headlines by sending out armed vigilantes in tactical gear to stand watch over — and film — ballot drop boxes in a number of locations around Maricopa County, Arizona. By week’s end, six cases of intimidation had been identified. The images were shocking, showing heavily armed, camera-wielding men stalking voters at drop boxes. The images wouldn’t have been out of place in Ukraine’s Donbas region, where gun-wielding Russian soldiers and paramilitaries recently watched over voters in the supposedly free and fair “referendums” on whether to join the Russian Federation. And, of course, the images would have been familiar to the victims of KKK violence, as well as those who endured White Citizens Council efforts to exclude non-whites from the voting process, in the post-Civil War and Jim Crow years.

In the wake of the events in Maricopa County, the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino filed a lawsuit requesting a restraining order against the far right group. The lawsuit alleges that the vigilante actions violate both the Voting Rights Act and the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan Act, aimed at barring private conspiracies to intimidate voters. At the same time, the Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is the Democratic candidate for governor, referred six cases of voter intimidation to the Department of Justice.

But while Arizona represents a frontline site of out-and-out voter intimidation, it is by no means the only locale grappling with this tactic as election deniers, still nursing their Trump-fueled grievances from 2020, look to make their mark on the 2022 election process.

Last week, a far right group in Colorado called FEC United sent out an email urging supporters to hold “ballot box parties” that would involve groups of seven or more individuals congregating around drop boxes and directing their car headlights at the voting place. In response, the Colorado secretary of state felt compelled to issue a statement warning that intimidation or harassment of voters would not be tolerated.

In Oregon, reports also surfaced this week of plans by groups to “watch” drop boxes, leading local elections officials to issue statements asserting that they would work to protect the right to vote free of intimidation. So, too, in Washington State, a group called the Election Integrity Committee seeded plans over the summer to monitor drop boxes around King County, home to Seattle. And in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, last spring, the conservative local district attorney roused the wrath of his state’s election officials and the ACLU by ordering his detectives to monitor ballot drop box sites during the primary elections.

The growing rash of voter intimidation projects, vaguely masquerading as attempts to ensure the “integrity” of elections, is part of a larger GOP effort — the modern heir of violent voter suppression methods from decades past — to sow chaos and discord around the voting process.

A majority of GOP candidates running for state and national office in 2022 are, to one degree or another, 2020 election deniers. Indeed, a recent tabulation by the Washington Post found 291 election deniers running for office this election cycle. Meanwhile, recordings of conversations between GOP operatives and local right-wing activists from earlier this year indicate a coordinated effort to systematically challenge votes in Democratic-leaning precincts in Michigan and other key battleground states.

The New York Times reports that right-wing activists around the country are gearing up to challenge elections officials — demanding access to voting machines, and trying to follow officials into secure areas during vote counts.

It’s hardly a stretch to say that intimidating voters and attempting to snarl up both the voting and the vote count processes are now standard operating procedures for much of the GOP. In Florida, Governor DeSantis even went so far as to create an Office of Election Crimes and Security police force, which seems to be little more than a uniformed intimidation mob, and which recently made high-profile arrests, targeting people with prior felony convictions who had registered to vote despite being excluded, by the category of their crime from the vote-restoration process passed by Florida residents in a citizens’ initiative a few years back. Not surprisingly, the police disproportionately targeted Black voters. Given how much confusion there is around this law, it’s by no means clear that any of these men and women knew they could not register to vote — yet they are facing years in prison as a result.

The GOP’s doubling down on making it harder to vote and to count votes is a huge problem. Elections only work to the extent that all parties buy in to the process; that they agree to accept the framework; and that they abide by the results. Pry open the pandora’s box of challenging each and every vote that doesn’t go one’s way, and that process starts to corrode remarkably quickly.

In early 2021, as Congress prepared to certify the Electoral College results, Trump pled with elections officials in Georgia to carry him over the election-winning line, arguing that “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.” A few days later, on January 6, he ginned up an insurrectionary mob by doubling down on his Big Lie that if only the votes had been counted correctly he would have won.

Two years later, the toxic consequences of these utterly undemocratic actions are metastasizing. In state after state, right-wing groups are working to intimidate either voters or elections officials. Earlier this year, the Brennan Center polled local election workers. It found that one in six had been threatened because of their work, 77 percent felt that threats had increased in recent years, and more than half reported feeling afraid for the safety of their colleagues. One in five election workers said that they planned to quit their jobs before the next presidential election.

When they leave, elections will be that much harder to conduct fairly; and into that void will likely ride deeply partisan figures, concerned far more with securing victory for their side than with keeping the complex machinery of democratic governance well oiled.

Arizona may, in that regard, be a harbinger of what is to come. In July, two elections officials in Yavapai County quit after months of threats from Trump supporters. In conservative parts of the state, local Oath Keepers chapters claim to be coordinating with sheriffs’ offices to monitor drop boxes in the run-up to the election. (The sheriffs’ departments have not confirmed such coordination is occurring.) The Arizona legislature is rife with Trumpists proposing outlandish “reforms” such as allowing state politicians to select their own electors over the will of the people. And the top three GOP candidates for state office — Kari Lake, the gubernatorial candidate; Abe Hamadeh, running for attorney general; and Mark Finchem, the extremist candidate for secretary of state — are all avowed election deniers.

With such a stew of conspiracy theories and extremism, it’s no surprise that groups are now donning tactical gear and weapons and heading off to the front lines to defend what they see as the American way of life by intimidating people attempting to cast their ballots and those whose job it is to count those ballots. Trump and his acolytes have greenlighted such vigilantism. It’s simply the latest chapter in their ongoing assault on the support pillars of the American democratic system.

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