Self-appointed vigilantes inspired to action by lies from the GOP’s hard-right MAGA wing about the 2020 election being “stolen” continue to stake out early-voting drop boxes in Arizona for signs of fraud they believe, contrary to all evidence, have enabled widespread cheating.
But not only is this intimidating to voters, at least six of whom have submitted formal complaints to state authorities as of Wednesday, it’s also “ridiculous,” “ludicrous,” “preposterous,” and “stupid,” according to Maricopa County’s top elections official—a lifelong Republican.
Most of the issues since early voting began on Oct. 12 have occurred in Maricopa, where people affiliated with groups like Clean Elections USA, an outfit helmed by a QAnon-adjacent minister who regularly appears on indicted Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s podcast. Conspiracy theorist Melody Jennings, who founded the organization, has called for teams of 10 at every box in Arizona and the dozens of other states that have them, monitoring everyone who comes and goes in an attempt to identify so-called mules stuffing the receptacles with phony ballots. Many of the box-watchers have been decked out in tactical gear and body armor; some have been armed.
“From a productivity standpoint, the notion that you are doing anything for election integrity, or the accuracy and security of our elections, by being out there is ridiculous,” Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer told The Daily Beast. “It makes no sense.”
For starters, any Arizonan can mail in their early ballot from any mailbox anywhere in the nation.
“So, the notion that somehow these drop boxes are ‘special,’ or that this is where you would catch some unlawful activity, is just ludicrous,” Richer said. “I mean, if I wanted to harvest ballots, then I… can go to any USPS slot in frickin’ Mississippi if I wanted to, and mail them. But I could certainly just go down to my neighborhood mail slot and drop them off there. So [that’s] one of the reasons why it’s stupid.”
The “mules” that people like Jennings, who has so far been named in three lawsuits filed by voting-rights groups over Clean Elections USA’s alleged interference, are a fiction created by far-right agitator Dinesh D’Souza. His thoroughly debunked film 2,000 Mules claimed, falsely, that Democrats threw the 2020 election for Joe Biden by illegally adding tens of thousands of bogus ballots to drop boxes, which were introduced in 40 states for public health reasons as COVID ravaged the U.S.
Jennings did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Wednesday.
A self-appointed drop box-watcher at a drop box site in Maricopa County.
There are just two 24/7 outdoor drop boxes in Maricopa, a county of 4.5 million people, Richer continued, noting that they only exist in the first place because “some people, for whatever reason, don’t like the USPS.” Both are under constant video surveillance by cameras set up by the county, and the live feeds, which provide various angles and views of both boxes as well as the ballot vault and tabulation areas, can be viewed on the official Maricopa County website.
“You can sit in your home and watch these ‘round the clock,” Richer said. “There's no reason to be there.”
This is all, of course, in addition to the myriad security features baked directly into the early-ballot processing system that has existed in Arizona since 1992, according to Richer. Only a registered voter can request a ballot, a process that includes verifying that person’s identity “on the back end with the Social Security Administration and with the Motor Vehicle Division,” Richer explained. The requester must have a verifiable home address, which is then plotted on a GIS map.
Officials then send the voter a piece of mail to make doubly certain the address is valid—if it comes back as undeliverable, the person’s name doesn’t get added to the early-voting list, Richer said. Once the early-voting ballot is finally sent out, it must be returned in a bar-coded green affidavit envelope, which includes a unique identifier linked only to that specific voter profile.
“And there can only be one ballot returned for every single voter profile,” Richer said. “So the notion that you can just inject 20,000 ballots [into the system] is ridiculous.”
This summer’s primaries were ultimately successful from a voting perspective, but Richer described the process as having “felt like getting punched in the face while doing it, just from a few quarters… that really made a lot of noise and tried to make it as challenging as possible.”
Some tell Richer, who described himself as a Republican “true believer” in a podcast this week, that his worldview is “naive,” and that he’s “a fool” for trusting the system. But, he said, these detractors don’t necessarily consider the facts and are generally out to “cause a stir and to rabble-rouse,” not actually further the democratic process.
Biden won Arizona in 2020 with a slim margin of 10,457 votes. Following a Keystone Kops-esque post-mortem audit pushed by Republicans, Biden’s lead in fact increased over Trump’s. The 2022 midterms in Arizona are being watched closely across the country, as the GOP hopes to regain control of the Senate.
In one race, incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, is running against Trump-backed Republican venture capitalist Blake Masters, who has benefited from nearly $2 million in ad spending to date by Trump super PAC MAGA Inc. Still, as of Wednesday, FiveThirtyEight polling has Kelly ahead by 4.5 percent.
In the far tighter governor’s race, former TV news anchor Kari Lake, an ardent Trumpist, is slightly edging out Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, by 1.3 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Hobbs’ office, which has escalated the half-dozen voter intimidation complaints it has so far received to the feds, provided The Daily Beast with copies of the latest three allegations.
The first incident took place last Friday, when an “older grey hair bearded man with a large camera on a tripod” allegedly harassed a voter in Maricopa. The unidentified box-watcher focused the camera on the voter’s face and license plate, then continued to track them as they entered their vote, according to the complaint.
“As I got to the box, he raised the camera again and filmed me dropping off my ballot in the box,” the complaint states. “I’m a senior and was very intimidated by his actions.”
On Saturday, another voter in Maricopa said a box-watcher in a Range Rover had breached the 75-foot buffer zone meant to tamp down ballot box intimidation. People “felt nervous about this person,” who was apparently taking photos of the voters showing up, one of whom responded by holding up a sign that said, “I invoke my right to vote,” according to the complaint.
The third incident occurred on Sunday, when Katie Hobbs, Arizona Elections Director Kori Lorick, and a third official whose name is redacted in the report, received an email reading:
“If you Cunt Lickers continue to fuck with the integrity of the AZ Elections….. I guarantee you, We the People will remove you from office….. Additionally, if you own a home…… We will find you through the Tax Assessors [sic] Website… Remember the French revolution of 1799??.....”
Richer has himself received significant blowback for publicly trying to dispel Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” about his one-term presidency being unjustly ripped away from him. In August, a Missouri public school employee was arrested and charged with sending Richer an email in which he appeared to threaten his life after calling one of Trump’s objectively unhinged statements about the 2020 election, “unhinged.”
Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a lawyer by training, took office in January 2021.
Yet, he downplays the effects this has had on him and his family, saying the election conspiracies have “more been a burden on our good friends at the sheriff's office.” Last Friday, two armed individuals were reported to authorities for loitering around a drop box site in Maricopa, but left the area when deputies arrived.
“The more folks there are that are creating problems, the more deputies that you’re going to see on the streets focused on this versus burglaries and crimes against children and robberies and all the stuff we should be doing,” Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said at a press conference on Monday, appearing alongside Richer. “But we’ll come, and we’ll babysit polling sites, because people have to misbehave, if that’s what we have to do to protect democracy.”
Richer told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that Penzone is “100 percent committed to making sure that our elections are safe, and making sure that voters are safe. So he’s committing resources to this but I would imagine that he doesn't love that has to, just because he has to deal with many, many, many other things.”
“And this,” Richer said, “is a preposterous one.”