MESA, Ariz. — A black Jeep crept along Coury Avenue on Wednesday night, rolling by one of the many ballot drop boxes collecting early votes for the midterm elections.
The driver, a man who declined to give his name, said he had made a pass at the box as part of a volunteer effort to stop a certain type of voter fraud that has captivated the far right, even though there is no evidence of its actually happening. He said it was the second night in a row he had driven by the box, this time after he had just taken his two children, who remained in the back seat, out for a sushi dinner.
He said he hoped to catch someone dropping off “100 ballots or 50 ballots.” No one did.
On Wednesday night, NBC News counted at least nine people watching the ballot drop box in Mesa, a small part of what has become a growing effort by some conservatives to monitor ballot drop boxes in hope of catching election fraud. Some people have stood watch at the drop box while wearing military-style fatigues and masks over their faces, prompting complaints to the Arizona secretary of state. NBC News did not observe any weapons.
No such drop box fraud has ever been found in significant numbers. But that has not stopped conspiracy theories about “ballot mules” — who supposedly secretly drop off hundreds of fake ballots in the middle of the night at drop boxes or election sites nationwide — from taking hold on pro-Trump parts of the internet. The conspiracy theory got its biggest boost from the widely debunked propaganda film “2,000 Mules,” which alleges such mules somehow changed the outcome of the 2020 election, even though repeated hand counts of ballots recertified the results.
The conspiracy theories have inspired action. Users on the Twitter-like platform Truth Social, which is owned by Trump Media & Technology Group, have discussed forming “mule parties” or “drop box tailgates” since at least late July, looking to organize volunteers to surveil drop boxes. On that platform, the former president’s account has shared posts by users advocating for drop box surveillance, including the Mesa drop box.
One organization, Clean Elections USA, has been pushing for Trump supporters on Truth Social to create “ballot tailgate parties” to monitor drop boxes nationwide for suspected “mules” since August.
The man who spoke with NBC News said that he spoke to two women who were watching the drop box for suspicious behavior and that they told him to sign up for a time slot online through Clean Elections USA.
The organization, founded by Tulsa, Oklahoma minister Melody Jennings, a Truth Social influencer, was sued this week by the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino for engaging in “conduct that is clearly meant to intimidate.”
Jennings, who goes by @TrumperMel to her 35,000 followers on Truth Social, did not respond to requests for comment. She distanced herself from illegal behavior at drop boxes in a post Tuesday.
“Anyone who does not follow the law at a drop box site is instantly disassociated with Clean Elections USA,” Jennings wrote.
The drop box efforts come amid heightened national concern over the midterm elections and how conspiracy-inspired Trump supporters could look to interfere with legitimate voting processes. Arizona’s secretary of state has already referred six reports of possible voter intimidation to law enforcement.
While Jennings’ group capitalized on a trending movement, her group did not create the concept of drop box tailgates.
On May 31, about one month before the primary she would eventually win, Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake told viewers on a right-wing broadcast outlet ahead of a state Senate hearing that “we will sleep by those drop boxes.” She added, “I’m rolling out my sleeping bag.”
The idea of organized drop box watching picked up momentum a month later in a series of posts on Truth Social.
An anonymous Truth Social member with 96 followers recommended “tailgate parties” in a reply to Seth Keshel, a pro-Trump influencer who blogs and gives public speeches about the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen.
Keshel “retruthed” the post, which is Truth Social’s sharing function, to his over 50,000 followers on July 22, adding: “I also like this idea. All night patriot tailgate parties at EVERY DROP BOX in America.” Keshel’s post quickly caught fire on the pro-Trump internet, according to data shared with NBC News by Pyrra Technologies, a dark web and social media monitoring firm.
Within hours, the post was shared by influencers on Telegram who endorsed the message, urging Keshel to have a “future pow-wow in Arizona, come October early voting.”
Some users on Truth Social decided not to wait for the general election. A since-deleted Truth Social account named after the QAnon slogan “Where We Go One We Go All” posted a picture of a tailgate party outside an Arizona drop box on July 29, when early voting was available in the gubernatorial and Senate primaries.
Users on Truth Social then began calling for more “mule parties” across the state, leading to an article on Aug. 1 on the far-right website The Gateway Pundit. Spurred by the positive coverage, the idea caught on across pro-Trump social media the next day on other pro-Trump platforms, like Gettr, TheDonald and the QAnon message board TheGreatAwakening.
“Things spiked around the time that Gateway Pundit covered that first tailgate,” said Welton Chang, the CEO of Pyrra.
Keshel told NBC News that while he has never attended a tailgate party at a drop box, he stands by his original idea.
“As for tailgate parties in every drop box: why not?” Keshel said, reiterating that drop box watchers should not participate in any illegal behavior.
“If someone needs an abundance of privacy to visit a ballot box to drop off a sealed envelope, it should be a pretty good sign there is something unsavory going on,” he said.
Eric H. Spencer, the former state elections director, told NBC News that legally, “there’s no objective test for intimidation” at drop boxes, but, he said, voter intimidation “is when the combination of a number of different circumstances come together and create an overall feeling that makes the voter deterred from wanting to vote.”
Spencer said the drop box watchers wearing fatigues are “one of the clearest examples that conduct might have crossed the line into intimidation that might be unlawful.”
This month, Jennings’ Clean Elections USA team of volunteers began making Keshel’s idea a reality. On Oct. 17, Jennings posted a picture of a man whose vehicle did not have a license plate dropping off a single ballot, courtesy of her “drop box watching team.”
A day later, she posted a picture of a man she found suspicious because he “drove in backwards to avoid plate detection” and “got out showing his back.”
“Someone get tags,” she wrote. “No talking to them.”
On Tuesday, Jennings posted pictures of an opened drop box in Centre County, Pennsylvania, writing that “concerned citizens went with the sheriff to open these sealed boxes” and discovered “10 ballots already in the box.”
Michael Pipe, who as chairman of the County Board of Commissioners oversees elections in Centre County, said in an email that because “excitement, interest and participation in the 2022 General Election is through the roof,” some voters deposited their ballots before they were officially open.
“We had a handful of voters who were a bit too eager and prematurely deposited their voted mail-in or absentee ballot into our drop boxes. We will identify ways to avoid this for future elections,” he said.
Pipe said that if ballots were inserted “prior to the official opening of a drop box, then the Installation Team returns the ballots to the Elections Office.” Those ballots are then “segregated until adjudication at a future public meeting of the Centre County Board of Elections.”
Jennings, with the help of several QAnon influencers on Truth Social, continued to push the Centre County conspiracy theory throughout the week.
“We are an army,” Jennings said on the podcast of the Connecticut Centinal, a right-wing website. “There are more of us than there are of them. We’ll get this done.”
Ben Collins reported from New York, and Vaughn Hillyard from Mesa, Arizona.