This article was originally published by Vanity Fair.
The Department of Justice has issued a rebuke of alleged voter intimidation in Arizona, and for the first time this cycle, it’s throwing its weight behind a high-profile lawsuit that accuses right-wing groups of enlisting their supporters to “surveil” drop boxes across the state.
In a Monday court filing, the DOJ openly condemned the “vigilante ballot security efforts” perpetrated by right-wingers in Arizona. “When private citizens form ‘ballot security forces’ and attempt to take over the State’s legitimate role of overseeing and policing elections, the risk of voter intimidation—and violating federal law—is significant,” the department said. “Citizen-led election monitoring activities are more likely to put voters in reasonable fear of harassment, intimidation, coercion, or interference with their voting rights.” The agency’s statement of interest comes amid growing reports of partisan vigilantes in Maricopa County staking out ballot boxes, filming would-be voters, and recording their license plate information. As Vice notes, most of these vigilantes appear to be motivated by Donald Trump’s election lies and, in particular, 2000 Mules, a debunked conspiracy film directed by right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza.
While the DOJ did not take a formal stance on how the court should decide the case, the department’s filing was closely aligned with arguments made by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which filed the suit. “Much like a citizen’s refusal to pay taxes does not become protected speech because she is attempting to express disapproval of the IRS, photographing a voter’s license plate does not become protected speech whenever the photographer seeks to express disapproval of drop-box voting,” the DOJ wrote.
The League of Women Voters has asked for a court order banning armed vigilantes from patrolling ballot boxes and has accused several right-wing groups of deliberately dispatching individuals to coerce residents out of casting a ballot. A similar suit filed by the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans stalled last week, with US district judge Michael Liburdi, who is also overseeing the League of Women Voters case, refusing to bar groups from monitoring outdoor ballot boxes on First Amendment grounds.
Last month a Phoenix-area sheriff’s department announced that it had increased security around ballot drop boxes to combat any future vigilantism. Arizona secretary of state Katie Hobbs, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, recently said that her office had received multiple reports of potential voter intimidation in the state, while Arizona’s election director and other state election officials have been subject to violent threats this cycle.