A federal judge ruled Friday that conspiracy theorists — some of them armed and wearing military-style tactical gear — have a right to continue staking out ballot drop boxes while people vote in Arizona.
Judge Michael Liburdi, appointed by former President Donald Trump, refused to issue a restraining order against members of a right-wing activist group gathering at ballot boxes in Maricopa County — arguing they had a First Amendment right to do so, were not a proven “true threat” and that their actions did not “fall into any traditionally recognized category of voter intimidation.”
“Many voters are legitimately alarmed by the observers filming” at ballot boxes, Liburdi conceded in his 14-page ruling. But he said there has been no proof that the group organizing the drop box guards, Clean Elections USA, has encouraged any acts of violence or posted personal or identifying information about voters using drop boxes.
“While this case certainly presents serious questions,” Liburdi noted, “the court cannot craft an injunction without violating the First Amendment.”
Liburdi agreed to keep the case open and said he would hear any new evidence demonstrating that defendants “have engaged in unlawful voter intimidation.”
Clean Elections USA claims it’s trying to prevent voter fraud by organizing activists across the country who station themselves at drop boxes. Since there has been no evidence of voter fraud, despite Trump’s repeated false claims about the 2020 election he lost, the group’s political bias is obvious, and its stakeout motivation specious.
Voters have filed complaints, and some have confronted the self-appointed ballot guards. (Check out one confrontation here:)
Liburdi was ruling on a lawsuit filed Monday by the nonprofits Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino. The suit argued that Clean Elections USA is violating the Voting Rights Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act by using harassment and threats to dissuade people from voting.
The suit, which demanded an injunction against the group, recounted several incidents in which Maricopa County voters were followed, photographed and accused of being “ballot mules.” The term, from a QAnon conspiracy theory and movie, refers to someone who stuffs ballot boxes with fraudulent votes. Some of the people haranguing voters were armed with guns and in military-style protective gear and masks, according to the lawsuit.
Liburdi ruled that Voto Latino had no standing in the case, and said the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans (AARP) failed to make an intimidation case serious enough to curtail First Amendment rights.
Both groups quickly filed an appeal with the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
AARP called the ruling “truly disappointing for our members and all older Arizonans.”
“We continue to believe that Clean Elections USA’s intimidation and harassment is unlawful. American citizens should be able to cast a ballot without fear of personal injury or other harm to their safety and security,” the statement added.
The head of Clean Elections USA, QAnon supporter Melody Jenner, hailed the ruling on right-wing social media site Truth Social, saying the “Constitution won today.” She has praised the armed ballot-box guards as “my beautiful box watchers.”
Since early voting began in Arizona on Oct. 12, Arizona’s secretary of state has referred at least six complaints of voter intimidation to the Department of Justice and the state’s attorney general for investigation, The New York Times reported. All of the incidents took place at outdoor ballot boxes in Phoenix and the suburb of Mesa.
“Voter intimidation is illegal, and no voter should feel threatened or intimidated when trying to vote,” Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who is running for Arizona governor, said in a statement earlier this week. “Anyone attempting to interfere with that right should be reported.”