When armed, masked men and people with long telescopic camera lenses showed up at ballot drop boxes last month in Arizona to stalk voters, many public officials were appalled. Voter intimidation complaints were filed and sent to the Department of Justice.
But on the pro-Trump internet, plans for this sort of thing had been brewing for months.
A movie released in May alleges without evidence that drop boxes were the scene of mass widespread voter fraud in 2020, enough to steal the election from former President Donald Trump. The film, called “2,000 Mules,” tries to use cell phone geolocation data and surveillance video to allege so-called “mules” stuffed drop boxes with the ballots.
The claims in the movie have been thoroughly debunked by election and cyber experts. Former US Attorney General William Barr referenced the movie when he told the House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol that he doesn’t believe the election was stolen.
“I haven’t seen anything since the election that changes my mind on that, including the ‘2,000 Mules’ movie,” Barr said in his testimony.
But still, the lie persists.
“If you talk to people who don’t believe that the election was fair in 2020, nine times out of 10 one of the first things they’re going to bring up is ’2000 Mules,’” said Garrett Archer, data analyst with ABC15 in Arizona and formerly a senior elections analyst with the Arizona secretary of state.
The movie uses cherry-picked surveillance footage and misused geolocation data to try to present a convincing case of widespread voter fraud. A lot of it focuses on alleged fraud in Georgia, but an investigator from the Republican-led Georgia secretary of state’s office said in May he had tracked down some people who had been accused of being mules by a group associated with the movie and he found they had voted legally.
Over on Trump’s social media platform Truth Social, people inspired by the movie began organizing to watch drop boxes to ensure the alleged widespread fraud that they falsely believe occurred in 2020 didn’t happen in 2022.
A group calling itself “Clean Elections USA” popped up, organized by a woman named Melody Jennings who said she was inspired by “2,000 Mules.”
Speaking to Steve Bannon on his radio show, Jennings said, “Really what inspired me was the idea of ‘2,000 Mules,’” adding, that when she saw trailers for the movie she decided to begin organizing to watch vote drop boxes.
When drop boxes opened in Maricopa County, Arizona, in October, Jennings posted on Truth Social that she had volunteers watching them. Later, when news broke of men in tactical gear at one of the drop boxes, she posted again, writing, “I am not responsible for individual’s decisions. We are all unique and make plenty as adults. Still a free country last time I checked. Whether I agree or disagree with individuals in how they walk out their patriotism, if they are law abiding, it’s not my call or yours. Optically I don’t love it.”
Lawsuits over voter intimidation
Jennings and her group Clean Elections USA have been the target of legal challenges attempting to stop alleged voter intimidation at drop boxes.
Last week, the Arizona chapter of the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit in federal court targeting groups and individuals, including Jennings, that they say are conspiring to intimidate voters in Arizona through a coordinated effort known as “Operation Drop Box.”
In the lawsuit, the League argues that the conduct of people who have been monitoring drop boxes in Yavapai and Maricopa Counties is part of an “escalating scheme of voter intimidation and harassment in Arizona” that undermines the rights of voters to cast their ballots “free from intimidation, threats or coercion.”
The Justice Department on Monday filed a brief advising the court that the lawsuit’s allegations “raise serious concerns of voter intimidation,” adding that “vigilante ballot security efforts” and “private campaigns to video record voters” likely violate the federal Voting Rights Act.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in Arizona imposed new restrictions on Clean Elections USA, blocking members from openly carrying guns or wearing body armor within 250 feet of drop boxes and speaking to or yelling at voters dropping off their ballots in the state. The group is also banned from photographing or filming any voters at the drop boxes or from posting similar images.
The order expires in two weeks, covering the remainder of the election season. It came just four days after the judge ruled the other way in a related case brought by an association for retirees and an organization for Latino voters, declining to issue an order restricting the drop box stakeouts.
At the time, District Judge Michael Liburdi, who is overseeing the litigation, had said there were legitimate concerns about the conduct but there wasn’t enough evidence at that stage to restrict anyone’s First Amendment rights.
Some have taken issue with how the movie calls voters shown in the film “mules.” Bill Gates, a Republican and chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said using a term like “mules” is dehumanizing and can lead to violence.
The word mule is often associated with the transportation of illegal drugs. “They’ve dehumanized folks with this term ‘mule,’” Gates said, “these are people who are going to vote, they’re exercising their right to vote in democracy.”
“This dehumanization that’s going on in our political discourse right now is very dangerous because it does justify the use of violence,” Gates said.
Gates himself was the target of conspiracy theories and harassment for his role in calling out lies in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Sharing a name with the founder of Microsoft who is also a target of conspiracy theories didn’t help the matter.
A lifelong Republican, Gates blames his GOP colleagues for promoting lies.
“What did people think the reaction was going to be? When literally hundreds of Republican elected officials started to attack the election system, they voted to de-certify the election in 2020. They all thought this was a game,” he said.
True the Vote
Among the most important groups in the myriad of those pushing election lies is True the Vote. It’s the group that provided the data for the “2,000 Mules” movie that it alleges shows mass voter fraud.
True the Vote, a conservative nonprofit, also provided data to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in 2021, but the agency concluded that there wasn’t “any other kind of evidence” that tied the provided cell phone and geolocation data to ballot harvesting.
“[F]or example, there are no statements of witnesses and no names of any potential defendants to interview,” said a September 2021 letter from GBI Director Vic Reynold to the Georgia Republican Party and True the Vote. “As it exists, the data, while curious, does not rise to the level of probable cause that a crime has been committed,” the letter said.
At a public meeting in May, which discussed several claims of voter fraud, Georgia State Election Board member Edward Lindsey, urged people who bring forth allegations to allow an investigation to take place before publishing those allegations.
“I would like for folks who are simply doing, exercising their right to vote and exercising the right of their family to vote, not to have allegations thrown about them,” he said.
Last month, the Arizona attorney general’s office asked for a federal investigation related to potential violations of the Internal Revenue Code by True the Vote.
An investigator in Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office, Reginald Grigsby, said in a letter that the group “raised considerable sums of money alleging they had evidence of widespread voter fraud” but has failed to provide any evidence to its office, despite publicly indicating they had shared the information with law enforcement agencies.
In a statement, True the Vote called the Arizona attorney general letter “false” and said it “smacks of retribution for the AG’s own decision to ignore suspicious voting activity.”
Two leaders of True the Vote were jailed this week after a federal judge in Texas found them in contempt of court. The group’s president Catherine Engelbrecht and onetime board member Gregg Phillips were taken into custody Monday after defying a court order to reveal more details in a civil case about one of their controversial attempts to uncover supposed fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
An attorney for Engelbrecht, Phillips and True the Vote referred CNN to a statement from the group which said that Engelbrecht and Phillips would be held in jail, “until we agree to give up the name of a person we believe was not covered under the terms” of the judge’s order.
CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.