Last month, at the recommendation of a man known online as Captain K, a small group gathered in an Arizona parking lot and waited in folding chairs, hoping to catch the people they thought were trying to destroy American democracy by destroying American democracy. false early votes to submit ballots.
Captain K—as Seth Keshel, a former US military intelligence officer who believes in vote-fraud conspiracy theories, calls himself—had set the plan in motion. In July, as states like Arizona prepared for their primaries, he posted a proposal on the Telegram messaging app: “Patriots tailgate parties all night for EVERY DROP BOX IN AMERICA.” The post got more than 70,000 views.
Similar calls rocked people in at least nine other states, the latest result of rampant conspiracy theories about voter fraud circulating by the Republican Party.
In the nearly two years since former President Donald J. Trump catapulted false claims of widespread voter fraud from the political periphery to the conservative mainstream, a constellation of its supporters has gone from one theory to another in a frantic but unsuccessful search for evidence.
Many are now targeting ballot boxes – where people can deposit their votes in secure and locked containers – under the unfounded believe that mysterious agents, or so-called ballots, stuff them with counterfeit ballots or otherwise tamper with them. And they recruit observers to watch countless drop boxes across the country, tapping the millions of Americans who have been influenced by false election claims.
In most cases, the organizational effort is in its infancy, with supporters posting unconfirmed plans to check out local drop boxes. But some small-scale “stakeouts” have been advertised using Craigslist, Telegram, Twitter, Gab and Truth Social, the social media platform supported by Mr. Trump. This year, several websites dedicated to the charity have gone online, including at least one intended to coordinate volunteers.
Some leading politicians have embraced the idea. Kari Lake, the Trump-backed Republican nominee for governor in Arizona, asked followers on Twitter if they would be “willing to shift to a drop box to catch potential Ballot Mules.”
Proponents have likened the events to innocent neighborhood watch or tailgate parties fueled by pizza and beer. But some online commentators discussed bringing AR-15s and other firearms, and have expressed their desire to arrest civilians and log license plates. That has raised concerns among election officials and law enforcement that what supporters describe as legal patriotic surveillance could easily degenerate into illegal voter intimidation, privacy violations, elections or confrontations.
“What we are going to face in 2022 is more of a civilian corps of conspirators who have already decided there is a problem and are now looking for evidence, or at least something they can twist into evidence, and use that to undermine confidence in results they don’t like,” said Matthew Weil, the executive director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “If your whole premise is that there are problems, every problem seems like a problem, especially if you have no idea what you’re looking at.”
Mr. Keshel, whose position as Captain K inspired the Arizona meeting, said in an interview that checking drop boxes could catch illegal “ballot collection” or voters depositing ballots for other people. The practice is legal in some states, such as California, but is mostly illegal on battlefields like Georgia and Arizona. There is no evidence of widespread illegal vote collection in the 2020 presidential election.
“To monitor a trial that is ripe for cheating, I think there is no other way but to oversee,” said Mr. Keshel. “They even check at polling stations when you go up, so I don’t see the difference.”
The legality of checking the boxes is fuzzy, Mr. Weil said. Supervision Laws polling stations — such as whether viewers can document voters entering or leaving — differ between states and are not usually adapted to ballot boxes.
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But many conservatives have argued that the boxes make electoral fraud possible. The conversation has been sparked by ‘2000 Mules’, a documentary by conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, which uses leaps of logic and questionable evidence to claim that an army of partisan “mules” traveled between the polls and stuffed them with fraudulent votes. The documentary proved popular on the Republican campaign trail and among right-wing commentators eager to find new ways to keep doubts about the 2020 election alive.
“Ballot mules” have quickly become a central character in false stories about the 2020 election. Between November 2020 and the first reference to “2,000 mules” on Twitter in January 2022, the term “voting mules” appeared only 329 times, according to data. from Zignal Labs. Since then, the term has cropped up on Twitter 326,000 times, 63 percent of the time in addition to discussing the documentary. Salem Media Group, the documentary’s executive producer, claimed in May that the film more than deserved it $10 million.
The push for civilian oversight of ballot boxes has gained momentum, along with legislative efforts to strengthen oversight of drop-off points. A state law passed this year in Utah requires 24-hour video surveillance to be installed at all unattended ballot boxes, and often challenging undertaking that has cost taxpayers in one county hundreds of thousands of dollars. County commissioners in Douglas County in Nebraska, which includes Omaha, voted in June to award $130,000 for drop box cameras to supplement existing cameras the county doesn’t own.
In June, Arizona lawmakers approved a budget that included $500,000 for a pilot ballot-checking program. The 16 boxes provided will have photo and video surveillance 24 hours a day, reject ballots if the cameras fail, and will only accept one ballot at a time, producing receipts for each ballot submitted.
Many supporters of the trousseau have argued that drop boxes should be banned completely. Some have posted video tours of dropbox sites, claiming that cameras are pointed in the wrong direction or that the locations are not properly secured.
Melody Jennings, a minister and adviser who founded the right-wing group Clean Elections USA, took credit for the Arizona meeting on Truth Social, saying it was the group’s “first run.” She said in a podcast interview that any surveillance teams she organized would try to include all voters who used drop boxes. The primaries, she said, were a “dry run” for midterm exams in November. Ms. Jennings did not respond to requests for comment.
After the Arizona meeting, organizers wrote to high-profile users of the Truth Social, including Mr. Trump, claiming without evidence that “mules came to the site, saw the party, and left without dropping ballots.” Comments on other social media posts about the event noted that the group of voters wary of involvement could have deterred, attracted people who intended to report the group’s activities, or simply witnessed lost passers-by .
On August 2, Mrs. Lake and several other election deniers during their primary in Arizona, where a GoFundMe campaign was seeking donations for “a statewide voluntary citizen presence on-site 24 hours a day at every public polling location.” Kelly Townsend, a Republican state senator, said at a legislative hearing in May that people would train “hidden cameras” on ballot boxes and track suspected fraudsters to their cars and record their license plate numbers.
“I’m so happy to hear about all you vigilantes who want to camp in these drop boxes,” Ms Townsend said.
Surveillance plans are also being formed in other states. Audit the Vote Hawaii posted that citizens there “assembled guard teams” to check the drop boxes. A similar group in Pennsylvania, Audit the Vote PA, posted on social media that they should do the same.
In Michigan, a shaky video, filmed from a car and posted to Truth Social, showed what appeared to be a man collecting ballots from a drop box. It ended with a close-up of a truck’s license plate.
In Washington, a right-wing group launched Drop Box Watch, a scheduling service helping people organize evictions, encouraging them to take pictures or videos of any ‘abnormalities’. The group’s website said all volunteer positions for the state’s primaries had been filled early this month.
A Gab user with more than 2,000 followers offered eviction tips on the social network and on Rumble: “Put their face on the camera clearly, we don’t want a blurry Bigfoot movie,” he said in a video, with his own face covered by a helmet, goggles and cloth. “We need to put that in the Gab group so there’s a constant log of what’s going on.”
The call for citizen surveillance goes beyond the ballot boxes. A post on a conservative blog applauds people who follow “suspicious pre-, during and post-election activities” at polling stations, polling stations and candidate offices.
Paul Gronke, the director of Reed College’s Elections and Voting Information Center, suggested that activists hoping for better election security should push for more data transparency measures and tracking programs that allow voters to track the status of their absentee ballot. He said he had never heard of a legitimate example of drop box watchdogs successfully detecting fraud.
The prospect of confrontation with self-proclaimed regulators largely untrained in state-specific electoral procedures, fueled by a steady diet of misinformation and militarized rhetoric, is “just a recipe for disaster” and “puts voters’ ability to cast their votes into danger” ballots,” said Mr Gronke.
“There are ways to secure the system, but leaving vigilantes around drop boxes is not the way to do it,” he said. “Dropboxes aren’t a problem — it’s just the wrong direction of energy.”
Cecilia Kango reporting contributed.