Judge Rejects Bid to Block Citizens Monitoring Ballot Drop Boxes in Arizona
Judge Rejects Bid to Block Citizens Monitoring Ballot Drop Boxes in Arizona

By Caden Pearson

A federal judge on Friday rejected a civil lawsuit seeking to block grassroots volunteers who mobilized to monitor absentee ballot drop boxes in Arizona.

The civil lawsuit accused defendants Melody Jennings, the founder of the Clean Elections USA (CEUSA) website, and a group of grassroots volunteers of purported voter intimidation at Arizona’s two outdoor ballot drop boxes in Maricopa County.

Two non-profit organizations, Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino, filed the civil suit.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael T. Liburdi for the District of Arizona on Friday dismissed Voto Latino from the case for not having standing because it didn’t show “concrete or particularized injury.”

“The Court has struggled to craft a meaningful form of injunctive relief that does not violate Defendants’ First Amendment rights and those of the drop box observers,” Liburdi said in his ruling (pdf).

Liburdi noted that many voters are “legitimately alarmed” by the drop box observers filming, but their conduct doesn’t constitute either voter intimidation or a true threat.

The Epoch Times has reached out to Voto Latino for comment.

Allegations

The drop boxes in question are in parking lots for voters to drive up and deposit their ballots from their vehicles.

According to the lawsuit (pdf), one voter filed a complaint alleging that a group of individuals gathered near the Mesa County ballot drop box and photographed and accused the voter and his wife of being mules.

Another complaint alleges that “individuals took photographs of a voter and his vehicle’s license plate,” according to the court filing. A third formal complaint alleges five or six men stood in the Mesa ballot drop box parking lot, taking photographs of the voter’s vehicle and license plate.

The lawsuit also alleges that Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was dispatched to the Mesa drop box location to investigate armed and masked observers wearing body armor.

The Epoch Times has reached out to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for comment.

But while the judge said the case “certainly presents serious questions,” it wasn’t enough for him to order an injunction to block their conduct without violating the First Amendment.

“Further, while the irreparable harm factor tips in favor of Plaintiffs, the balance of the equities and public interest do not,” Liburdi said. “A preliminary injunction cannot issue on these facts, but Arizona Alliance is invited to return to this Court with any new evidence that Defendants have engaged in unlawful voter intimidation.”

People outside a ballot drop box in Mesa, Ariz., on Oct. 21, 2022. (Maricopa County Elections Department via The Epoch Times)

‘Constitution Won Today’

Saundra Cole, the president of Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans, said it was “truly disappointing.”

Jennings celebrated the ruling.

“The constitution won today. This battle is not over, but today was a step for freedom and for your 1st amendment rights being preserved,” Jennings said on Truth Social. “The request for a restraining order against myself and those involved in Clean Elections USA was denied.”

She urged Americans to “go vote” and to thank drop box watchers for “protecting your freedom.”

(L-R) Lynnette, 50, and Nicole, 52, watch a ballot drop box while sitting in a parking lot in Mesa, Ariz., on Oct. 24, 2022. (Bastien Inzaurralde/AFP via Getty Images)

Cole said her non-profit intends to appeal the ruling and maintains that the drop box watching constitutes unlawful “intimidation and harassment.”

“American citizens should be able to cast a ballot without fear of personal injury or other harm to their safety and security,” she said in a statement.

“That said, the right to vote is precious and the stakes are especially high in this election. We urge all older Arizonans not to be deterred and return their ballots before the deadline, or vote in person on Election Day,” she said.

The lawsuit alleged that the volunteers violated Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act and the Support or Advocacy Clause of the Ku Klux Klan Act. But the judge didn’t agree.

Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act states that no person, “whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote.”

Nicole, 52, watches a ballot drop box while sitting in a parking lot in Mesa, Ariz., on Oct. 24, 2022. (Bastien Inzaurralde/AFP via Getty Images)

Grassroots Citizens’ Group

Jennings founded CEUSA after watching filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary “2000 Mules,” which presents evidence that brought into question the validity and legitimacy of the 2020 electoral process.

“2000 Mules” uses anonymized cellphone location data to tell the story of a shadowy network of “ballot mules” working to influence the 2020 election outcome by collecting fraudulent absentee ballots and strategically depositing them in early voting drop boxes throughout key electoral states.

In a previous interview with The Epoch Times, Jennings described CEUSA as a “decentralized grassroots movement” made up of concerned and patriotic citizens watching for any potential absentee ballot box stuffing in the midterm elections.

The lawsuit noted that as far as the court can tell, CEUSA “is not organized as a valid legal entity under the laws of any state and appears to simply be a web domain name.”

“In Arizona, we are careful to maintain the 75-foot distance from the drop box. We work at outdoor boxes only,” Jennings said.

“We encourage our people not to go alone for safety reasons. We are 100 percent law-abiding,” she said.

Supporters of President Donald Trump in front of the Maricopa County Election Department while votes are being counted in Phoenix, Ariz., on Nov. 6, 2020. (Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images)

First Amendment Rights

The judge found that the conduct of the citizens’ group is protected by the First Amendment because Jennings’ social media posts demonstrate that she believes “the presence of her volunteers alone” conveys a message to would-be ballot mules.

In weighing up the First Amendment rights of the volunteers, the judge noted that while watching ballot drop boxes itself is not a fundamental right, “the Supreme Court instructs that the protections of the First Amendment do ‘not end at the spoken or written word.’”

“The evidence in the record shows that Defendants’ objective is deterring supposed illegal voting and illegal ballot harvesting,” Liburdi said.

“The message is that persons who attempt to break Arizona’s anti-ballot harvesting law will be exposed,” he added. “On this record, therefore, the Court finds that a reasonable observer could interpret the conduct as conveying some sort of message, regardless of whether the message has any objective merit.”

The judge also noted in his ruling that filming matters of public interest is a well-established First Amendment right, that the Supreme Court recognizes a right to gather news, and that the public has a First Amendment right to “receive information and ideas.”

Melody Jennings admonishes any volunteers via Truth Social to act lawfully while observing ballot drop boxes in Arizona, on Oct. 20, 2022. (Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

‘No Evidence’ of Voter Intimidation or Threat

The judge said in his ruling that plaintiffs provide “no evidence” that the conduct of the citizens’ group “constitutes a true threat.”

“On this record, Defendants have not made any statements threatening to commit acts of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals,” Liburdi said.

“There is no evidence that Defendants have publicly posted any voter’s names, home addresses, occupations, or other personal information. In fact, Jennings continuously states that her volunteers are to ‘follow laws’ and that ‘[t]hose who choose to break the law will be seen as an infiltrator intent on causing [CEUSA] harm.”

The ruling noted that Jennings’ social media posts “admonish volunteers to remain outside the statutorily prescribed seventy-five-foot voting location radius.”

“Furthermore, the record contains evidence of Jennings’ social media posts instructing her affiliates not to engage with or talk to individuals at the drop boxes,” Liburdi said. “Even if these statements are mere window dressing, a reasonable listener could not interpret Ms. Jennings’ social media pronouncements that alleged ‘mules’ will ‘shrink back into the darkness’ following her drop box initiative as true threats.”

The judge also found that the conduct of the citizens’ group doesn’t “fall into any traditionally recognized category of voter intimidation.”

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