Election officials faced with the presence of armed militia at some polling stations

Election officials faced with the presence of armed militia at some polling stations

A voter places a ballot in a ballot box outside the Maricopa County Elections Department on August 2, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

A pair of armed and masked men in tactical gear stand guard at ballot boxes in Mesa, Ariz., on Oct. 21 as people begin early voting for the 2022 midterm elections.

They belonged to an election monitoring group called Clean Elections USA, which also repped the former president Donald Trump false claims that the 2020 election was rigged. The group says it is monitoring early voting in select counties for signs of fraud. But his presence caused unease among Maricopa County voters, who saw these “box keepers” as a blatant attempt to intimidate voters.

“Ignorant vigilantes outside Maricopa County’s ballot box do not enhance the integrity of elections. Instead, they lead to complaints of voter intimidation,” Maricopa County elections officials Bill Gates and Stephen Richer said in a joint statement the next day.

Two gunmen dressed in tactical gear were at the polling place in Mesa.

Source: Maricopa County Recorder’s Office and Maricopa County

Trump-appointed U.S. District Court Judge Michael Liburdi ordered members of Clean Elections USA to stay at least 75 feet from the ballot box and not to follow or talk to voters. They were also told that they could not openly carry weapons. The decision was in response to a temporary restraining order filed by two voter advocacy groups, alleged poll watchers were trying to “harass and intimidate legal voters in Arizona.”

“We are deeply concerned about the safety of individuals who exercise their constitutional right to vote and who lawfully drop off their early ballots,” Gates and Richer said.

While Arizona has seen plenty of reports of voter intimidation, the state is certainly not alone. Fears of voter intimidation and suppression have been spreading across the country since the 2020 presidential election, when Trump refused to accept his loss and accused several states of voter fraud.

The increasing rhetoric led to high tensions in Tuesday’s appointments. Two out of five American voters said they were worried threats of violence or intimidation of voters at polling stations, according to the new Reuters/Ipso poll.

The same disinformation about election fraud that fueled a riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 is the same disinformation that “threatens political violence about our elections,” Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a former federal prosecutor, said in an interview on PBS Newshour:

“And by political violence, I don’t just mean physical violence. I mean intimidation, voter intimidation, intimidation and threats and harassment of our election workers, aggressively recruiting poll watchers from groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers to really be an intimidation force on polls and other kinds of really anti-democratic processes that are driven, again, by the same misinformation and lies about the 2020 election,” McCord said.

President Joe Biden pointed to the rise in political violence in a speech Wednesday night, urging voters to go to the polls next week to help preserve democracy.

“There is an alarming increase in the number of people in this country who condone political violence or simply remain silent,” Biden said. “We know in our bones that democracy is threatened, but we also know this: it is in our power to preserve our democracy.”

His remarks also came on the heels violent attack against Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, at their home in San Francisco.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, said the country was facing “an environment of fascism.”

“This kind of intimidation at the polls is taking us back to Jim Crow,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an Oct. 28 interview on MSNBC “All in with Chris Hayes.” “It brings us back and reminds us of a very unique form of American apartheid that was not so long ago.”

Two gunmen dressed in tactical gear were at the polling place in Mesa.

Source: Maricopa County Recorder’s Office and Maricopa County

With concerns about political violence and voter suppression at an all-time high, federal agencies and nonprofit organizations are taking the threat to election integrity with increased seriousness.

The Justice Department has stepped up efforts to protect voters and election workers in recent weeks. The agency launched a task force on threats to the July 2021 election to ensure the safety of voters at the polls and investigate intimidation of election workers.

In early October, the FBI warned to voters about possible election crimes ahead of the election, highlighting its efforts to educate voters about their rights and encourage them to report violations. Election crimes fall into three broad categories, according to the FBI: voting or voting fraud, campaign finance violations, and civil rights violations, including voter suppression or voter intimidation.

The DOJ emphasized its hardline position against voter intimidation.

“The Department of Justice has an obligation to guarantee a free and fair vote by all who are qualified to vote and will not allow voter intimidation,” Attorney General Merrick Garland he said during a press briefing on October 24.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and public policy institute, has identified 10 states at high risk of disruption due to scale false accusations and activities against voters. These are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

Many states have introduced additional safeguards to ease concerns leading up to and on election day.

In New York, Attorney General Letitia James issued voter protection guidelines to local election boards and law enforcement. The 15 page guide describes the constitutional and legal protections afforded to voters, as well as what is allowed at polling stations and what is not. James also established a statewide voter protection hotline.

“Voting is a fundamental right and an integral part of the sanctity of our democracy, and I encourage anyone who encounters obstacles to contact my office. I will not allow anyone to jeopardize the right to vote in New York State,” James said in a statement.

Similarly, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin established a voter protection initiative to identify and address any voting rights or civil rights violations during early voting and at the polls “to ensure that every eligible voter will be able to vote and that every whoever attempts to disrupt the voting process will be held responsible to the full extent of the law.”

Nonpartisan voter protection hotlines are also available in Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina and Montana, in addition to hotlines run by the American Civil Liberties Union at the state and national levels. On election day, voters can call local election offices and report any complaints.

“We always hope and expect that the election will go smoothly and that voters will not encounter problems. However, we know that problems do arise and we stand ready to help voters solve these problems and ensure that their voices are heard,” ACLU West Virginia Director of Advocacy Eli Baumwell said ua statement.

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