Lawsuit filed to stop vigilante surveillance of drop boxes in Arizona

The Arizona League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit on October 25 targeting groups that they say are conspiring to intimidate voters in Arizona through "Operation Drop Box." Fences are pictured here at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center.

By Maeve Reston, Fredreka Schouten and Tierney Sneed, CNN

(CNN) -- The Arizona chapter of the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit in federal court late Tuesday targeting groups and individuals that they say are conspiring to intimidate voters in Arizona through a coordinated effort known as "Operation Drop Box."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the League in the US District Court for the District of Arizona by a group known as Protect Democracy. It is the second recent lawsuit filed in federal court targeting the conduct of individuals -- some of whom are armed -- who have been staking out and filming voters at ballot drop boxes in Arizona.

The lawsuit alleges that the conduct violates the Voting Rights Act and another federal law that prohibits conspiracies to intimidate voters. It is seeking a court order blocking the defendants from "further intimidating voters or otherwise violating the law."

In the lawsuit, the League argues that the conduct of people who have been monitoring drop boxes in Yavapai and Maricopa Counties is part of an "escalating scheme of voter intimidation and harassment in Arizona" that undermines the rights of voters to cast their ballots "free from intimidation, threats or coercion."

The voting rights organization alleges that the Lions of Liberty LLC and the Yavapai County Preparedness Team -- two groups that the League claims are related to the Oath Keepers of Yavapai County -- along with a group known as Clean Elections USA, have been "actively planning, coordinating, and recruiting for widespread campaigns to surveil and intimidate Arizona voters at ballot drop boxes and baselessly accuse them—either directly or indirectly—of committing voter fraud, and spread false information about legally valid forms of voting."

An official with the Yavapai County Preparedness Team declined to comment on the lawsuit when reached by CNN on Tuesday. An attorney for Clean Elections USA did not immediately respond to CNN's inquiry. CNN also has reached out to Lions of Liberty via the group's website.

The lawsuit notes that the conduct of the vigilantes -- some of whom have been wearing masks and tactical gear -- appears to be inspired by the debunked film known as "2000 mules," which advanced the right-wing conspiracy theory that so-called "ballot mules" illegally dropped off multiple ballots at drop boxes during the last election. The suit notes that the film "has been roundly discredited by experts" and includes "images of innocent voters lawfully casting their ballots" in order to "peddle a dangerous conspiracy theory."

People who are staking out the ballot drop boxes, the League argued, are also propagating the lie that Arizonians are violating the law whenever they deposit a ballot for another person -- when in fact state law allows household members, caregivers as well as election officials to assist voters by dropping off their ballots for them.

The lawsuit alleges that Lions of Liberty and the Yavapai County Preparedness Team are engaged in "a widespread campaign to surveil all drop boxes in Yavapai County, film voters and then report to law enforcement any voters who deposit multiple ballots." The scheme includes asking "patriots" to take shifts monitoring all of the drop boxes in the county and to take pictures of any voter that deposits more than one ballot, as well as pictures of their car and license plates, and then report their findings to the Yavapai County Sheriff.

The League claims that Clean Elections USA and its founder Melody Jennings have organized a statewide campaign known as "Dropbox Initiative 2022" to surveil and harass voters -- a scheme intended to "baselessly accuse voters of being 'mules' and to 'dox' them by publicly revealing their personal information online," the lawsuit said.

Earlier this week, an association for retirees and an organization for Latino voters sought a temporary restraining order against Clean Elections USA, and its founder, Melody Jennings, alleging they are coordinating a campaign of voter intimidation in Arizona. The lawsuit alleged that Clean Elections USA was running afoul of federal law with incidents near ballot drop box locations in Arizona. That lawsuit pointed to three complaints that have been submitted by voters to election officials in the state.

The Arizona Secretary of State has referred those and several similar complaints of intimidation to the US Justice Department.

The two groups, Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino, are seeking the temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction that would bar the defendants "from gathering within sight of drop boxes; from following, taking photos of, or otherwise recording voters or prospective voters, those assisting voters or prospective voters, or their vehicles at or around a drop box; and from training, organizing, or directing others to do those activities."

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