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Arizona sees dispute over 'Clean Elections' name for group monitoring ballot drop boxes

A voter places a ballot in a drop box outside of the Maricopa County Elections Department on August 02, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. Arizonans are voting in the state's midterm primary election.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
A voter places a ballot in a drop box outside of the Maricopa County Elections Department on August 2, 2022 in Phoenix.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- The executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission wants to block a group monitoring ballot drop boxes from using the Clean Elections name, at least in Arizona.
In a message to the Attorney General's office, Tom Collins said people associated with Clean Elections USA already have been active in Maricopa County.
Collins is not saying the monitoring itself is illegal. But he said that the activity under that banner undermines the work the commission is doing in Arizona. And that includes everything from sponsoring debates to sending out voter education guides to every household where candidates get to make pitches in their own words.
"The group's usage of the Clean Elections name in Arizona creates a high likelihood of voter confusion and may cause voters to find the guide untrustworthy or partisan,'' Collins wrote in seeking immediate legal help.
It also comes as some individuals watching a drop box outside the offices of the Maricopa County Elections Department told a reporter they were with Clean Elections USA.
And the Secretary of State's Office has filed a complaint with both state and federal officials after a voter reported being approached and followed while trying to deposit a ballot at a drop box outside another county office in Mesa. It was not immediately known if they were with the same organization.
What is clear is that Melody Jennings, founder of the national organization, told former Trump aide Steve Bannon on his podcast that she has people ready to go in 18 states, including Arizona "to go out in shifts and guard these boxes.''
In a separate podcast, Jennings said Clean Elections USA is working to get 10 or more volunteers around each drop box. And she said her organization will make sure that the volunteers are "one of us.''
All that, Collins told Capitol Media Services, raises the risk that people here will be confused.
"The voters of Arizona have said they want a clean elections system,'' he said. That came in 1998 when they approved creating the commission which provides public funds to candidates who decline to take donations from special interests.
But the voter-approved initiative also had other goals.
"They want us to do the things it does which is to inform voters and ensure they have access to information and promote participation,'' Collins said.
"This group, when they step into Arizona, is not standing for those propositions,'' he continued. "In fact, all evidence is that it stands for the opposite of that.''
And that, Collins said, means the commission needs the legal help to be able to push back and keep anyone else -- particularly those who may be involved in voter intimidation -- from operating under a "Clean Elections'' banner.
"I cannot abide by somebody using our name in Arizona to do the exact opposite of what Clean Elections stands for,'' he said.
Efforts to reach Jennings or Clean Elections USA through multiple platforms were unsuccessful.
The organization's web site says that drop boxes, by their nature, open the door for illegal activity.
"We must deter people from committing fraud,'' it says.
"The only way we can do this is to monitor those drop box locations with a team of volunteers,'' it continues. "That is why we're reaching out to patriots like yourself who have similar concerns.''
The web site also claims "votes have been diluted by phony ballots'' and how ballot "mules'' depositing fake ballots have "hijacked'' elections.
Collins called the situation "pretty acute.''
"We're in the middle of an election,'' he said, saying damage already is being done.
"We've got this booklet going to people's doors that represent the candidates' own views in their own words,'' Collins said. "It represents clear and nonpartisan information on how to participate in voting.''
That, he said, means promoting voting in all legal forms. And in Arizona, where close to 90% of voters get early ballots, that means being able to send them in by mail -- or at official drop boxes.
"This group, whatever their basis, whoever they are, when they come into Arizona with the exact opposite message, we've got to stand up for essentially what the voters have put in law as far as Clean Elections goes,'' Collins said.
On Twitter: @azcapmedia