The prime example of everything weird and unsettling about the ongoing attack on democratic norms is currently taking place in Arizona. For the past several weeks, far-right conspiracy theorists have posted themselves near ballot drop boxes in Maricopa County. Two armed individuals keeping an eye on the boxes prompted a police intervention and earned themselves referrals for criminal investigation.
Let me say this at the top: Election monitors are good. It is to everyone’s benefit that there are citizens willing to keep an eye out for shenanigans and dirty tricks while their neighbors are trying to vote. In an ideal world, the job of an election monitor is to ensure that everyone who comes to a precinct — or casts a ballot in a drop box — is afforded equal protection under the law.
MAGA Republicans and their supporters are using the same tactics that a real election observer should safeguard against.
That job includes watching out for the (very, very rare) cases of voter fraud, while also protecting voters from being intimidated or unfairly turned away from the polls. But in Maricopa County and elsewhere, MAGA Republicans and their supporters are using the same tactics that a real election observer should safeguard against, in their latest perversion of public service.
The Department of Justice on Monday filed a “statement of interest” in an election lawsuit in Arizona, saying that the “vigilante ballot security measures” on display there likely violate the Voting Rights Act. “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 DOJ wrote in its filing.
Defenders of the practice might say it’s to intimidate would-be cheaters. But due to the layers of checks that happen after the ballots are collected, “there's simply no legitimate or useful election integrity function served by watching drop boxes or photographing voters,” Matt Blaze, a Georgetown University law professor who researches methods to secure systems, explained.
A federal judge agreed on Tuesday, issuing a temporary restraining order against Clean Elections USA, a group that has been organizing the drop box-watching campaign in Arizona's Maricopa County. That injunction — which also extends to people and groups working with Clean Elections USA — bans the self-appointed monitors from taking pictures and videos of voters dropping off ballots, as well as barring participants from opening carrying firearms and posting information about voters online.
That a group of armed goons standing around a ballot box is intimidating is a no-brainer. What’s less easy to parse out is how their more official counterparts will affect voting patterns this year. On the one hand, you have the outright partisan observers implementing the “flood the zone with s---” methods that federal convict Steve Bannon has championed. That includes both partisan groups who are drowning election officials in bogus challenges and the Republican Party-trained poll workers being deployed to challenge voters at polling places in Democratic-leaning precincts.
On the other hand, you have the situation unfolding in Texas, where Secretary of State John Scott and Attorney General Ken Paxton — both Republicans — are planning to send officials to oversee voting in Harris County. Harris is the third-largest county in the country, home to Houston’s extremely diverse population, and where some of the country’s expansive efforts to make voting easy were in place in 2020.
The county’s top elected leaders — all Democrats — are requesting that the Department of Justice send federal election monitors to keep an eye on the state-level observers. Scott’s spokesperson told The Washington Post that the Democrats doth protest too much:
Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said much of the backlash over the deployment of monitors is overblown given that it happens every year — and is actually required by law when a certain number of voters request it, as happened this year. While 118 observers have been dispatched so far statewide this year, the number was 250 in 2020, he said. The monitors’ role is to observe election procedures and document issues such as security failures.
The spokesperson neglected to mention that when even more state observers were deployed in 2020, President Donald Trump still called for an audit of Harris County’s election practices — and Jones and Paxton agreed. The alleged problems found during that audit, which Harris officials deny, are now being used as the impetus for the state’s “randomized checks” on Election Day. It's clear then that no amount of scrutiny would actually be enough for the people who insist that a wave of voter fraud gripped the country in 2020.
In fact, the most egregious examples of security breaches related to the 2020 election have all come from Trump supporters. In the aftermath of Trump’s loss, allies in at least four states gained access to voting machines and/or their data in attempts to prove claims of mass voter fraud. Not only did they fail to prove any such thing, but two of these groups of election deniers are also now under criminal investigation in Michigan and Colorado.
It’s hard to overstate just how much worse these would-be election monitors’ plans are than the supposed fraud they claim to be seeking to prevent. Arizona’s Republican attorney general uncovered, in total, 12 ballots that were improperly cast in 2020 out of millions of votes. It’s not clear yet how many voters will be discouraged from casting their ballots if the current environment of intimidation is allowed to continue — but I’m willing to bet it’s more than 12.