Electoral officers face the presence of armed militias in some elections

A voter places a ballot in a mailbox outside of the Maricopa County Elections Department on August 02, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Two armed and masked men in tactical gear stood guard at ballot boxes in Mesa, Arizona on Oct. 21 as people began early voting for the 2022 midterm elections.

They were part of an election monitoring group called Clean Elections USA, which has repeated former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 elections were stolen. The group says it is monitoring early voting in select counties for signs of fraud. But his presence caused unease among Maricopa County voters, who viewed these “drop-box watchers” as a blatant attempt at voter intimidation.

“Uninformed vigilantes outside of Maricopa County’s mailboxes do not enhance the integrity of the elections. Instead, they lead to complaints of voter intimidation,” Maricopa County Elections Officials Bill Gates and Stephen Richer said in a joint statement the next day.

Two armed individuals in tactical gear were on site at the Mesa ballot box.

Source: Maricopa County Recorder’s Office and Maricopa County

A Trump-appointed US District Court Judge, Michael Liburdi, ordered members of Clean Elections USA to stay at least 75 feet from dropboxes and not to follow or speak to voters. They were also told not to openly carry weapons. The ruling came in response to an injunction issued by two voter advocacy groups alleging poll watchers attempted to “harass and intimidate lawful voters in Arizona.”

“We are deeply concerned about the safety of individuals exercising their constitutional right to vote and lawfully delivering their early ballot to a mailbox,” Gates and Richer said.

While Arizona has seen a multitude of reports of voter intimidation, the state is certainly not alone. Fears of voter intimidation and suppression have been brewing across the country since the 2020 presidential election, when Trump refused to accept his loss and accused several states of voter fraud.

The mounting rhetoric is creating tension that will continue into Tuesday’s midterms. According to a new Reuters/Ipso poll, two in five US voters said they were concerned about threats of violence or voter intimidation during the election.

The same disinformation about voter fraud that fueled the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot is the same disinformation that “threatens political violence related to our election,” Mary McCord, the executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and former federal prosecutor, said in an interview on PBS Newshour:

“And by political violence, I don’t just mean physical violence. I mean intimidation, voter intimidation, intimidation and threats and harassment against our poll workers, aggressive recruitment of poll observers by groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers to be a real force of intimidation in the elections and other types of really anti-democratic processes that in turn driven by the same disinformation and lies about the 2020 election,” McCord said.

Noting the rise in political violence in a speech Wednesday night, President Joe Biden urged voters to go to the polls next week to help uphold democracy.

“There is an alarming increase in the number of people in this country who are condoning political violence or who are simply silent,” Biden said. “We know in our bones that democracy is in danger, but we also know one thing: it is in our power to protect our democracy.”

His comments also followed the violent attack on Paul, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at their San Francisco home.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, said the country is facing a “fascist environment.”

“That kind of election intimidation brings us to Jim Crow,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an Oct. 28 interview on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes. “It brings us back and evokes a very unique form of American apartheid that wasn’t that long ago.”

Two armed individuals in tactical gear were on site at the Mesa ballot box.

Source: Maricopa County Recorder’s Office and Maricopa County

With concerns about political violence and voter suppression at an all-time high, federal agencies and nonprofits are taking the threat to election integrity with heightened seriousness.

The Justice Department has stepped up efforts to protect voters and poll workers in recent weeks. The agency established an election threats task force in July 2021 to ensure voter safety at the polls and to investigate intimidation of poll workers.

In early October, the FBI warned voters about possible voting crimes ahead of the midterm elections, emphasizing its efforts to educate voters about their rights and encouraging them to report violations. According to the FBI, election crimes fall into three broad categories: ballot or poll fraud, campaign finance violations, and violations of civil rights, including voter suppression or intimidation.

The DOJ has taken pains to emphasize its uncompromising stance against voter intimidation.

“The Justice Department has a duty to ensure free and fair voting for all eligible voters and will not allow voters to be intimidated,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said during an Oct. 24 news briefing.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and public policy institute, identified 10 states that are at high risk of disruption due to the volume of false allegations and anti-voter activity. They are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

Many states have introduced additional safeguards to address concerns leading up to and on election day.

In New York, Attorney General Letitia James has issued a guide to local election officials and law enforcement agencies on voter protection. The 15-page guide describes the constitutional and legal protections afforded to voters, as well as what is and isn’t allowed at polling stations. James also set up a nationwide voter protection hotline.

“Voting is a fundamental right and an integral part of the sanctity of our democracy and I urge anyone who encounters obstacles to contact my office. I will not allow anyone to threaten the right to vote in New York State,” James said in a statement.

Similarly, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin created a voter protection initiative to identify and address any voting rights or civil rights violations in early voting and in the election, “to ensure that every eligible voter will be able to cast a vote and that anyone who attempts to disrupt the voting process will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

Bipartisan voter protection hotlines also exist in Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, and Montana, in addition to hotlines operated by the American Civil Liberties Union at both the state and national levels. Election Day voters can call local polling stations to lodge complaints.

“We always hope and expect that the elections will go smoothly and that voters will not have any problems. However, we know issues arise and we stand ready to help voters resolve those issues and ensure their voices are heard,” ACLU West Virginia Advocacy Director Eli Baumwell said in a statement.

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