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Retiree, Latino organizations sue group, alleging voter intimidation in Arizona

A grassroots group, Clean Elections USA, has organized volunteers to monitor drop boxes in Maricopa County over the last week as early voting is underway, the suit says.
A voter places a ballot in a drop box outside of the Maricopa County Elections Department on Aug. 2, 2022 in Phoenix.
A voter places a ballot in a drop box in Phoenix in August 2020. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — An organization representing nearly 50,000 retirees and a nonprofit group dedicated to expanding political engagement among Latino voters sued a group that has surveilled ballot drop boxes in Arizona over the last week.

The Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino filed a 64-page complaint and motion Monday seeking a restraining order in U.S. District Court for Arizona. It accuses a grassroots group called Clean Elections USA and its founder, Melody Jennings, of intimidating voters "at least five times last week" as they have dropped off their ballots in Maricopa County.

People working on behalf of Clean Elections USA have "gathered at ballot drop boxes in Maricopa County with the express purpose of deterring voters ... from depositing their ballots," the lawsuit says.

The two organizations said about Clean Elections USA: "Things are getting worse: on Friday, two of the drop box watchers were armed and wearing tactical gear, and again on Saturday, armed and masked individuals were gathered near drop boxes."

The lawsuit says Clean Elections USA, which purports to be a nationwide effort, started the surveillance activities in response to a debunked conspiracy theory positing that people known as "mules" are part of "a shadowy, sprawling political cabal" that "collects or forges absentee ballots and deposits them in drop boxes."

The Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino said Clean Elections USA is violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which were enacted to prevent voter intimidation in the Reconstruction and civil rights eras.

"Immediate relief is necessary," the lawsuit says. "Voting is already underway, and there are only 15 days left until election day. Defendants’ organized vigilante groups have already turned away voters."

The lawsuit asks the court to block the group's volunteers from gathering within sight of drop boxes or taking photos or recording videos of voters or prospective voters or people assisting them.

Jennings did not immediately reply to a request for comment. She has boasted about her efforts on former President Donald Trump's social media platform, Truth Social, under the account "TrumperMel," according to the suit. It includes screenshots of some of her posts, some of which feature photos of her team monitoring ballot drop box locations.

"Someone called in seeing 2 of our people in tactical gear and armed," she wrote in a post included in the filing. "They will always gear up for a call like that. Thankfully wearing tactical gear and carrying in our country where the right to bear arms is an unalienable right, can and should be respect, especially when the goal is protecting the sovereign rights granted of every American citizen to a free and fair election. To me it was all a win/win."

Her group's website explicitly says it must "legally deter people from committing voter fraud" by monitoring drop box locations with a team of volunteers.

"We are looking for true patriots to take a stand and watch the drop boxes," it says. "We want to gather video (and live witness evidence) of any ballot tampering that takes place in real time. Are you willing to take a shift in a team of patriots to watch these locations and take notes/video of any suspicious activity within what the laws of your state permit?"

The two organizations suing Jennings and her group noted that early voting in Arizona continues until Sunday. Although Arizona's secretary of state referred several complaints to the state attorney general's office and the U.S. Justice Department, the groups want a restraining order immediately to prevent further voter intimidation.

The sheriff in metropolitan Phoenix has increased security around ballot drop boxes in response to the latest incidents, The Associated Press reported.