One night last month, on the advice of a person known online as Captain K, a small group gathered in an Arizona parking zone and waited in folding chairs, hoping to catch the people they believed were attempting to destroy American democracy by submitting fake early voting ballots.
Captain K — which is what Seth Keshel, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who espouses voting fraud conspiracy theories, calls himself — had set the plan in motion. In July, as states like Arizona were preparing for his or her primary elections, he posted a proposal on the messaging app Telegram: “All-night patriot tailgate parties for EVERY DROP BOX IN AMERICA.” The post received greater than 70,000 views.
Similar calls were galvanizing people in at the very least nine other states, signaling the newest outgrowth from rampant election fraud conspiracy theories coursing through the Republican Party.
Within the nearly two years since former President Donald J. Trump catapulted false claims of widespread voter fraud from the political fringes to the conservative mainstream, a constellation of his supporters have drifted from one theory to a different in a frantic but unsuccessful seek for evidence.
Many are actually focused on ballot drop boxes — where people can deposit their votes into secure and locked containers — under the unfounded belief that mysterious operatives, or so-called ballot mules, are stuffing them with fake ballots or otherwise tampering with them. And so they are recruiting observers to watch countless drop boxes across the country, tapping the hundreds of thousands of Americans who’ve been swayed by bogus election claims.
Most often, organizing efforts are nascent, with supporters posting unconfirmed plans to observe local drop boxes. But some small-scale “stakeouts” have been advertised using Craigslist, Telegram, Twitter, Gab and Truth Social, the social media platform backed by Mr. Trump. Several web sites dedicated to the cause went online this yr, including at the very least one meant to coordinate volunteers.
Some high-profile politicians have embraced the concept. Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, asked followers on Twitter whether or not they would “be willing to take a shift watching a drop box to catch potential Ballot Mules.”
Supporters have compared the events to harmless neighborhood watches or tailgate parties fueled by pizza and beer. But some online commenters discussed bringing AR-15s and other firearms, and have voiced their desire to make residents’ arrests and log license plates. That has set off concerns amongst election officials and law enforcement that what supporters describe as legal patriotic oversight could easily slip into illegal voter intimidation, privacy violations, electioneering or confrontations.
“What we’re going to be coping with in 2022 is more of a citizen corps of conspiracists which have already decided that there’s an issue and are actually in search of evidence, or at the very least something they will twist into evidence, and use that to undermine confidence in results they don’t like,” said Matthew Weil, the chief director of the Elections Project on the Bipartisan Policy Center. “When your entire premise is that there are problems, every issue looks like an issue, especially if you’ve got no idea what you’re .”
Credit…Screenshot from Truth Social
Mr. Keshel, whose post as Captain K inspired the Arizona gathering, said in an interview that monitoring drop boxes could catch illegal “ballot harvesting,” or voters depositing ballots for other people. The practice is legal in some states, like California, but is usually illegal in battlegrounds like Georgia and Arizona. There is no such thing as a evidence that widespread illegal ballot harvesting occurred within the 2020 presidential election.
“As a way to quality-control a process that’s ripe for cheating, I suppose there’s no way aside from monitoring,” Mr. Keshel said. “The truth is, they’ve monitoring at polling stations if you go up, so I don’t see the difference.”
The legality of monitoring the boxes is hazy, Mr. Weil said. Laws governing supervision of polling places — similar to whether watchers may document voters entering or exiting — differ across states and have mostly not been adapted to ballot boxes.
But many conservatives have argued that the boxes enable election fraud. The talk has been egged on by “2000 Mules,” a documentary by the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, which uses leaps of logic and dubious evidence to say that a military of partisan “mules” traveled between ballot boxes and stuffed them with fraudulent votes. The documentary proved popular on the Republican campaign trail and amongst right-wing commentators, who were looking forward to novel ways to maintain doubts concerning the 2020 election alive.
“Ballot mules” have quickly change into a central character in false stories concerning the 2020 election. Between November 2020 and the primary reference to “2000 Mules” on Twitter in January 2022, the term “ballot mules” got here up only 329 times, based on data from Zignal Labs. Since then, the term has surfaced 326,000 times on Twitter, 63 percent of the time alongside discussion of the documentary. Salem Media Group, the chief producer of the documentary, claimed in May that the film had earned greater than $10 million.
The push for civilian oversight of ballot boxes has gained traction concurrently legislative efforts to spice up surveillance of drop-off sites. A state law passed this yr in Utah requires 24-hour video surveillance to be installed in any respect unattended ballot boxes, an often difficult undertaking that has cost taxpayers in a single county a whole lot of 1000’s of dollars. County commissioners in Douglas County in Nebraska, which incorporates Omaha, voted in June to allocate $130,000 for drop box cameras to complement existing cameras that the county doesn’t own.
In June, Arizona lawmakers approved a budget that included $500,000 for a pilot program for ballot box monitoring. The 16 boxes included may have round the clock photo and video surveillance, rejecting ballots if the cameras are nonfunctional, and can accept only a single ballot at a time, producing receipts for every ballot submitted.
Many supporters of the stakeouts have argued that drop boxes must be banned entirely. Some have posted video tours of drop box sites, claiming that cameras are pointed within the mistaken direction or that the locations can’t be properly secured.
Melody Jennings, a minister and counselor who founded the right-wing group Clean Elections USA, claimed credit for the Arizona gathering on Truth Social and said it was the group’s “first run.” She said in a podcast interview that any surveillance teams she organized would attempt to record all voters who used drop boxes. The primaries, she said, were a “dry run” for the midterms in November. Ms. Jennings didn’t reply to requests for comment.
After the Arizona gathering, organizers wrote to high-profile Truth Social users, including Mr. Trump, claiming without evidence that “mules got here to the location, saw the party and left without dropping ballots.” Comments on other social media posts concerning the event noted that the group could have frightened away voters wary of engaging, drawn people planning to report the group’s activities or just witnessed lost passers-by.
On Aug. 2, Ms. Lake and a number of other other election deniers prevailed of their primary races in Arizona, where a GoFundMe campaign sought donations for “a statewide volunteer citizen presence on location 24 hours a day at each public voting drop box location.” Kelly Townsend, a Republican state senator, said during a legislative hearing in May that folks would train “hidden trail cameras” on ballot boxes and follow suspected fraudsters to their cars and record their license plate numbers.
“I actually have been so pleased to listen to about all you vigilantes on the market that need to camp out at these drop boxes,” Ms. Townsend said.
Surveillance plans are also forming in other states. Audit the Vote Hawaii posted that residents there have been “pulling together watch teams” to watch the drop boxes. The same group in Pennsylvania, Audit the Vote PA, posted on social media that they need to do the identical.
In Michigan, a shaky video filmed from inside a automobile and posted on Truth Social showed what gave the impression to be a person collecting ballots from a drop box. It ended with a close-up shot of a truck’s license plate.
In Washington, a right-wing group launched Drop Box Watch, a scheduling service helping people organize stakeouts, encouraging them to take photos or videos of any “anomalies.” The group’s website said all its volunteer slots for the state’s primary early this month were filled.
The sheriff’s office in King County, Wash., which incorporates Seattle, is investigating after election signs popped up at several drop box sites within the state warning voters they were “under surveillance.”
One Gab user with greater than 2,000 followers offered stakeout recommendations on the social network and on Rumble: “Get their face clearly on camera, we don’t want no fuzzy Bigfoot film,” he said in a video, together with his own face covered by a helmet, goggles and cloth. “We’d like to place that within the Gab group, so there’s a relentless log of what’s happening.”
Calls for civilian surveillance have expanded beyond ballot boxes. One post on a conservative blog cheers on individuals who monitor “any suspect activities before, during and after elections” at ballot-printing firms, vote tabulation centers and candidates’ offices.
Paul Gronke, the director of the Elections and Voting Information Center at Reed College, suggested that activists hoping for improved election security should push for more data transparency measures and tracking programs that allow voters to watch the status of their absentee ballot. He said he had never heard of a legitimate example of dropbox watchdogs successfully catching fraud.
The prospect of confrontations involving self-appointed overseers largely untrained in state-specific election procedures, charged up by a gradual food plan of misinformation and militarized rhetoric, is “only a recipe for disaster” and “puts in danger the voters’ ability to forged their ballots,” Mr. Gronke said.
“There are methods to secure the system, but having vigilantes standing around drop boxes is just not the technique to do it,” he said. “Drop boxes will not be a priority — it’s only a misdirection of energy.”
Cecilia Kang contributed reporting.