Election officials probe alleged voter intimidation at ballot drop box

Deanna Daugherty drops her ballot off at the ballot drop box Thursday outside the Maricopa County Juvenile Court in Mesa, where two other voters reported being photographed and followed Monday by a group watching the box. (Photo by Alexia Faith/Cronkite News)

Election officials are investigating a report that two voters who went to drop their ballots at this Mesa drop box were followed, videotaped and had their license plate photographed by a group that accused the voters of being “mules.” (Photo by Alexia Faith/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Election officials reacted swiftly to reported voter intimidation this week at a Mesa ballot drop box, condemning the action and reassuring voters that they are working with law enforcement to address such incidents.

The statements come after two voters reported to the secretary of state’s office that when they went to drop off ballots Monday, a group “hanging out near the ballot dropbox” filmed them and accused them of “being a mule,” an apparent reference to debunked claims of ballot fraud.

The group followed the couple to their car, photographing its license plate and briefly tailing the two voters out of the parking lot of the Maricopa County Juvenile Court, where the drop box is located, according to the statement to the secretary of state.

Sophia Solis, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, said in an email that the report was referred to the U.S. Justice Department and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, and that Maricopa County election officials were alerted as well.

Maricopa County Elections Department spokesperson Megan Gilbertson in an emailed statement Thursday that it is “unacceptable and unlawful to impede any voter from participating in the election.”

The ballot drop box can be seen by the curb in front of the Maricopa County Juvenile Court in Mesa in this Thursday photo. (Photo by Alexia Faith/Cronkite News)

“The County has taken active steps to ensure the safety and security of staff and voters, but many of these self-styled ‘drop box watchers’ have the right to be on public sidewalks and parking lots,” Gilbertson’s statement said. She and others reassured voters that the drop boxes are safe and secure.

Brnovich did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. But his office last week asked the FBI and IRS to investigate the tax-exempt status of an election-denial group that “has raised considerable sums of money” off its claims of drop-box fraud, while refusing to provide any evidence to his office despite repeated promises to do so.

Justice Department spokesperson Aryele Bradford confirmed in an email that the department had received the referral from Hobbs’ office, but would not comment further.

The report comes less than a week into the state’s early voting period and follows months when election deniers, including some candidates, have called for groups to monitor elections and polling places.

That includes state Rep. Mark Finchem, the GOP nominee for secretary of state, who claims that the 2020 election was “irredeemably compromised” – even after a state Senate audit of Maricopa County election results determined that President Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by a larger margin than first thought.

Finchem did not respond to a request for comment on the drop box incident Thursday. But he made his position clear Thursday evening on Twitter, where he accused Hobbs and the media of “intimidating the ballot drop box watchers” who he said have a right to watch. He immediately followed that with an all-caps tweet that urged his followers to “Watch all drop boxes. Period. Save the republic.”

But Finchem is apparently in the minority when it comes to concerns about election security in the state, according to a recent poll for the Center for the Future of Arizona. It found that 74% of likely voters in the state said that elections are fair, including 65% of GOP respondents.

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The poll also found that 70% said the elections were secure, including 54% among Republicans. The August survey of 500 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3%.

“Arizona has some of the best-run elections in the country, and we have for a long time,” said Paul Bentz, senior vice president of research and strategy at the consulting firm HighGround Inc., which did the survey for the center.

Bentz called the Mesa drop box incident another example of how the Arizona Republican Party has been dominated by a “very active, very passionate and very angry segment of the electorate,” who insist the election was stolen.

And he worried that, besides intimidating people who go to the drop box to vote, such incidents could scare some people away from voting at all.

“If you’re an undecided voter, and you’re looking at this race, there is a likelihood, especially with these types of tactics, that they may just choose not to vote at all,” Bentz said. “They may just choose to stay home.”

Voters can report incidents of voter intimidation or other issues on the secretary of state’s website.

Ryan Knappenberger Ry-an Nap-pen-ber-ger
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Ryan Knappenberger expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Knappenberger has interned with The Arizona Republic and The Copper Courier.

Alexia Faith uh-lex-see-uh faith (she/her/hers)
News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Alexia Faith expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications. Faith, who has interned as a videographer with Arizona Highways Magazine, has her own videography and photography company.