A couple prepares to deposit their ballots in a drop box in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles in 2020. Drop boxes are at the heart of a voter intimidation lawsuit in Arizona. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo
Nov. 1 (UPI) -- The Justice Department ruled that "vigilante" poll watchers stationed at ballot drop boxes in Arizona are unlawful.
Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, wrote on Monday that the First Amendment "affords no protection for threats of harm directed at voters" taking the side of the League of Women Voters on Monday in a lawsuit related to alleged voter intimidation in the state.
"The First Amendment does not protect individuals' right to assemble to engage in voter intimidation or coercion," Clarke wrote. "Nor does it transform an unlawful activity for one individual - voter intimidation -- into a permissible activity simply because multiple individuals have assembled to engage in it."
The League of Women Voters has accused several organizations, including some armed groups, with trying to intimidate voters during surveillance at ballot drop boxes in the state. Supporters of former President Donald Trump have claimed without evidence that the drop boxes are a source of widespread voter fraud.
The Justice Department on Monday said that "vigilante ballot security efforts that threaten to subject voters to adverse consequences, including harassment, 'public opprobrium' and baseless allegations of felonious conduct for voting or attempting to vote can run afoul" of the Constitution.
Maricopa County, Arizona's most populous county and one of its most diverse has been an intense target for Trump supporters since it helped trip Arizona to President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
The county, which is controlled by Republicans, has made for an unusual intra-party fight in Arizona between GOP county officials who have vigorously defended election officials and the voting process there and Trump supporters who have repeatedly said the county is the source of ballot fraud.
"To have folks standing outside of drop boxes, armed in tactical gear, with body armor, that is unprecedented," said Bill Gates, the chair of the Republican-led Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
"There's a balance between the First Amendment rights that people have and also the right that people have to not feel intimidated when voting. That point was made very strongly."
U.S. District Judge Michael Liburdi, a Trump appointee and a longtime member of the Federalists Society, ruled in a parallel case last Friday that the U.S. Constitution protected the activities of citizens who wish to gather near ballot boxes.
The league's lawsuit asking Liburdi for a temporary injunction to end drop box monitoring by the Lions of Liberty and the Clean Elections USA is still pending.