Saturday, March 25, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge declines to block drop box patrolling for ‘ballot mules’

Despite no evidence of election fraud, Clean Elections USA deployed armed men in tactical gear and masks to ballot drop boxes across Arizona to deter people from submitting more than one ballot — an act the group falsely claims is outright illegal.

PHOENIX (CN) — A federal judge on Friday preliminarily declined to block members of the group Clean Elections USA from gathering within sight of ballot drop boxes following complaints that armed and masked members intimidated potential voters during the 2022 election.

The Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino filed a joint lawsuit against Clean Elections USA in October. Amid largely unfounded claims of widespread election fraud, Clean Elections founder Melody Jennings encouraged members to patrol drop boxes across Arizona to deter what she called “ballot mules” — people turning in more than one ballot at a time.

Despite the group’s claims that turning in multiple ballots is always illegal, Arizona law allows one to turn in ballots on behalf of family members, household members or someone they care for.

The lawsuit came after Arizonans in multiple cities complained of masked, sometimes armed men in tactical gear and bulletproof vests intimidating voters by recording them and taking photos of their cars and license plates. The Arizona League of Women Voters filed a similar suit against Clean Elections USA and another group called Lions of Liberty two days later. The court consolidated the cases on Oct. 31.

Members of Clean Elections USA sporting masks and tactical gear, some of whom were armed, were seen patrolling ballot drop boxes in Mesa and Phoenix during the 2022 election (Screenshot via Courthouse News)

The Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino were later dismissed from the case along with Lions of Liberty and other individual defendants, leaving only the League of Women Voters against Clean Elections USA and Jennings.

U.S. District Judge Michael Liburdi granted the league a two-week temporary restraining order on Nov. 1, telling the defendants they couldn’t be within 75 feet of a drop box or entrance to a building containing a drop box, follow individuals delivering ballots to the drop box, speak to voters within 75 feet of a drop box unless first spoken to, or openly carry firearms or wear visible body armor within 250 feet of a drop box.

Liburdi also ordered Clean Elections to post to its website and Jennings’ Twitter page a statement clarifying that submitting multiple ballots at a time isn’t always illegal.

Nearly three months later, Liburdi decided during a Friday morning status conference to deny the League of Women Voters’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

“I view that as an extraordinary remedy,” Liburdi told the league's attorney Orion Danjuma. “Particularly where we have First Amendment speech rights, assembly rights.”

Liburdi said he would need to ensure that Clean Elections’ presence at ballot drop boxes poses a real danger to voters before making that decision and that the league is free to file another temporary restraining order for now.

Clean Elections denied the league's first settlement offer, but attorney Alexander Kolodin, who also serves as a Republican state Representative from Scottsdale, said he may file a counteroffer on Clean Elections’ behalf.

“The ball is in your court,” Liburdi told him.

The league now has 30 days from Friday to either file a response to the defendants’ dismissal motion or amend the complaint to make the motion moot.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.