The Washington Post

Video offers a rare glimpse of Arizona officers enforcing election laws

Body-camera footage shows police interactin­g with drop box observers

- BY YVONNE WINGETT SANCHEZ AND ADRIANA USERO Alice Crites in Washington contribute­d to this report.

PHOENIX — As activists staked out a suburban ballot drop box last year, some toting guns and dressed in tactical gear, law enforcemen­t officers found themselves also playing the role of front-line election workers.

In interactin­g with these observers, local sheriff ’s deputies explained and enforced complicate­d — and sometimes vague — election laws, weighing whether observers’ face coverings, guns and video cameras hindered people’s ability to vote, according to body-camera footage obtained by The Washington Post. The deputies handed out tips for following the law, calmly de-escalated tension, leveraged humor to gather informatio­n and measured observers’ distance from a drop box to ensure they were within the law.

The 45 minutes of footage offers a rare window into the new role law enforcemen­t is playing in Arizona’s elections, where bands of self-styled civilian watchdogs mistrustfu­l of voting systems and government took it upon themselves during the midterm election’s early-voting period to gather evidence of impropriet­ies they believed could happen. The scenes played out in Maricopa County, home to most of the state’s voters and an epicenter of the election denialism movement that fueled efforts to reverse the 2020 election results.

During encounters with three groups of observers last October, deputies tried to minimize the threat and disruption to voters but could not infringe on the observers’ rights to freedom of speech and to carry weapons under Arizona law. The deputies employed tactics learned in an election-focused training months earlier, and Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone (D) recalls warning them their interactio­ns with observers would be closely watched and judged.

“Although it may not be a fundamenta­l task that we ever expected to participat­e in, it is absolutely an obligation if we expect our nation to remain stable,” he said. “I just never expected to dedicate this volume of resources for that cause.”

The office spent $665,000 on law enforcemen­t activities surroundin­g the 2022 midterm election, including for personnel overtime, temporary fencing that surrounded the county’s votecounti­ng center to control access, and responding to reports of observers at the county’s two outdoor drop boxes, Penzone said. He expects this sort of work to only increase with the presidenti­al election next year.

“This was a dress rehearsal for 2024,” Penzone said.

Other law enforcemen­t agencies in states found themselves in similar situations, as ballot receptacle­s suddenly came under scrutiny, largely by right-leaning activists and groups. Maricopa appeared to experience the most extreme activities, and voting rights advocates say the monitoring created hostile environmen­ts for voters, election workers and law enforcemen­t.

Drop boxes are intended to serve as safe and convenient tools to deposit ballots and have been used here for years. But former president Donald Trump and his allies have spread baseless conspiracy theories linking the boxes to voter fraud — and prompting observers to stake them out in search for evidence that has not been found.

In the video footage, which The Post obtained through a request for public records filed in October, the deputies talk about receiving reports of observers wearing military-style tactical gear and carrying weapons — which the Justice Department later said could violate the federal Voting Rights Act. But those individual­s left the scene before deputies could gather identifyin­g informatio­n about them.

The deputies talked at length with more casually dressed observers left behind. Some shared their names, while others declined. Some sat in camping chairs, as if waiting in line for a concert, or on the folded-down tailgate of a pickup truck. One claimed to have seen someone “stuffing items into the ballot box” but was unwilling to provide deputies with video footage the group claimed to have, according to a police report. Another explained that she covered the license plate of her car in an attempt to outsmart liberal activists who she speculated might try to expose her identity to online mobs. Several of the observers were asked to identify the names of the groups they were affiliated with and declined to do so. In the footage, none were asked about possible associatio­ns with political parties, and they did not volunteer that informatio­n.

They came armed with guns, face coverings, an assortment of video cameras and snacks. One woman munched on popcorn as she watched the drop box.

None of the people shown in the videos were charged with crimes, according to authoritie­s. The Post contacted those it could identify for comment. One woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in a brief interview that she remains mistrustfu­l of the drop boxes, although she said she saw no suspicious activity.

While leaders of stakeout efforts often stress that they are not attempting to deter voters from using ballot boxes, one comment on Oct. 21 suggested otherwise.

One woman, sitting in a folding chair with her face hidden, marveled at how few voters she had seen during her shift.

“No one has been here, which is great,” she told deputies. “Tonight, we have seen no one. Now, last night, we were here and people were driving all around.”

Ballot transport records from the county’s election department show that 76 ballots had been retrieved from the drop box earlier that day. The following Monday, another 546 ballots, which had been deposited by voters during the weekend, had been retrieved by election officials.

The same night, deputies said in a police report they were asked by their office to check out “suspicious persons” near the same drop box. An officer saw two observers wearing face coverings and tactical gear who “appeared to be armed with holstered sidearms,” a report said. They left the scene before deputies could gather more informatio­n.

Nearby, three people wearing casual clothing sat in lawn chairs with a camera affixed to a tripod, according to reports. A deputy asked if they were affiliated with the observers who had been in the area wearing tactical gear.

“Dressed like that, that’s a little intimidati­ng,” the deputy said.

He gave an observer tip sheets about election laws, which required them to be at least 75 feet away from the box. One of the observers, dressed in a T-shirt featuring a lion, responded that the group is “determined to follow the letter of the law.”

The deputy tried to explain that the letter of the law is open to some interpreta­tion.

“Here’s my big concern,” the deputy said, “I’m going to try to get clarificat­ion. … It’s very vague, it says ‘ hindering voting.’ If we get a voter that says they feel hindered by you guys being here, technicall­y, that falls within the statute.”

But a clear part of the law is that observers aren’t allowed within 75 feet of the drop box, so the deputy fetched a measuring wheel and calculated the space between the box and the observers. It was more than 75 feet.

“Much rather be a little too far than a little too close,” said the observer in the lion T-shirt, who told deputies he was affiliated with an effort called “Drop Box Initiative.” An effort by the same name had been underway at the time, organized in part by a group then known as Clean Elections USA, which echoed unsubstant­iated claims of fraud in the 2020 election. A separate Arizona group that has been affiliated with far-right ideology was also engaged at the time in drop box monitoring.

Arizona attorney and state Rep. Alexander Kolodin (R), who represents the group formerly known as Clean Elections USA, said the monitoring was intended to express disapprova­l of the drop boxes, to highlight supporters’ belief that they were insecure and to try to make sure they were as secure as possible.

He said that several groups worked on monitoring the boxes and didn’t comment on that particular observer. Efforts to reach the group’s founder, Melody Jennings, were unsuccessf­ul.

The deputy told observers they weren’t doing anything illegal, and his colleague tried to get them to understand the type of activity that might be illegal.

“We get a call that says there’s somebody near our parking lot with ski masks on,” he said. “I was in the military for 20 years, that’s going to raise the hair on the back of my head.”

The observers’ fraud-hunting mission tied up the time of at least two deputies, pulling one away from other work and the other from going home on time. A deputy asked the observers how many more days they intended to show up.

“It’s a burden on us to, to pull our guys” from other operations, one deputy told them.

The following night, multiple deputies quickly responded as a scuffle broke out between an observer and a person wearing a face mask and an outfit resembling a nun’s habit who had allegedly tried to remove a flag that shielded the identity of another observers’ license plate, according to the video and an accompanyi­ng written police report.

A deputy watched from his vehicle, then jumped out, shouting, “Hey, stop!” The observers, some wearing body cams of their own, pleaded for protection.

“She’s touching us,” one observer said. “She’s touching my vehicle.”

“She took a picture of my license plate,” another told him. “She touched my vehicle.”

Another observer, his face covered, declared: “It’s trespassin­g.” He added, without stating any evidence: “That person is antifa,” referring to some left-wing activists.

The deputy told the group the actions he saw and heard about were not illegal. He calmly urged them to calm down and to not escalate the situation into something that could break the law.

“You have to understand that that’s a significan­t escalation,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” said an observer who said he was from North Carolina. “It is defense of our property.” He continued, “She incited violence and you know it.”

The officer countered, “We have a very different understand­ing of inciting violence.”

Then, the man from North Carolina invoked his weapon as he addressed the person dressed as a nun.

“Constituti­onal carry state, lady,” he yelled. The officer interjecte­d, “Stop. … Some people don’t like guns still, okay.”

During nearly 20 minutes of footage, one observer said they were there that night because they had heard about “some ballot initiative bulls---. ‘ We said, ‘Let’s go sit out there.’”

 ?? MARICOPA County Sheriff’s Office ?? Maricopa County Sheriff ’s deputies, seen in an October image from video, discussed election law, including what constitute­s voter intimidati­on, with people observing drop boxes in Mesa, Ariz.
MARICOPA County Sheriff’s Office Maricopa County Sheriff ’s deputies, seen in an October image from video, discussed election law, including what constitute­s voter intimidati­on, with people observing drop boxes in Mesa, Ariz.

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