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How ‘mule watchers’ went from a Truth Social meme to a ballot box patrol

MESA, Ariz. — A black Jeep slithered along Coury Avenue Wednesday night, passing one of several ballot boxes collecting early votes for the midterm elections.

The driver, a man who declined to be named, said he made a pass at the box as part of a pro bono effort to stop a type of voter fraud that has captivated the far right, even though there is no evidence its actually happening. He said it was the second night in a row he had passed the club, this time after taking his two children, who had been left in the back seat, for a sushi dinner.

He said he was hoping to catch someone casting “100 ballots or 50 ballots”. Nobody did.

NBC News counted at least nine people watching ballot boxes in Mesa on Wednesday night, a small part of what has become a growing effort by some conservatives to monitor ballot boxes in hopes of catching voter fraud. Some people monitored the drop box while wearing fatigues and military-style face masks, prompting complaints to the Arizona secretary of state. NBC News did not observe any weapons.

No drop box type fraud has ever been found in significant numbers. But that hasn’t stopped conspiracy theories about ‘voting mules’ – who are supposed to secretly drop off hundreds of fake ballots in the middle of the night at drop boxes or election sites nationwide. — to take over pro-Trump parts of the internet. The conspiracy theory received its biggest boost from the widely debunked propaganda film “2,000 mules”, which alleges that these mules somehow changed the outcome of the 2020 election, even though repeated manual ballot counts vote recertified the results.

Conspiracy theories inspired action. Users of the Twitter-like platform Truth Social, which is owned by Trump Media & Technology Group, have been discussing forming ‘mule parties’ or ‘drop box tailgates’ since at least late July, seeking to organize volunteers to monitor drop boxes. On this platform, the former president’s account shared posts from users advocating dropbox monitoring, including the Mesa dropbox.

One organization, Clean Elections USA, has been pushing for Trump supporters on Truth Social to create “voting nights” to monitor drop boxes across the country for suspected “mules” since August.

The man who spoke to NBC News said he spoke to two women who were monitoring the drop box for suspicious behavior and they told him to register for an online timeslot through Clean Elections USA .

A Truth Social screenshot of the former president’s account sharing a message from Melody Jennings.@TrumperMel via Twitter

The organization, founded by Tulsa, Oklahoma Minister Melody Jennings, a Truth Social influencer, was sued this week by the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino for engaging in “conduct clearly intended to intimidate”.

Jennings, who goes by @TrumperMel for his 35,000 followers on Truth Social, did not respond to requests for comment. She distanced herself from illegal behavior at drop boxes in a post on Tuesday.

“Anyone who violates the law on a filing site is instantly dissociated from Clean Elections USA,” Jennings wrote.

The dropbox’s efforts come amid heightened national concern over the midterm elections and how conspiratorial Trump supporters may seek to interfere with legitimate voting processes. The Arizona secretary of state has already referred six reports of possible voter intimidation to law enforcement.

While Jennings’ group capitalized on a trend move, his group did not create the concept of drop box tailgates.

On May 31, about a month before the primary she would eventually win, Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake told viewers on a right-wing television channel ahead of a Senate hearing in state that “we’ll be sleeping near these drop boxes”. She added, “I’m rolling out my sleeping bag.”

The idea of ​​looking at organized drop boxes gained momentum a month later in a series of posts on Truth Social.

An anonymous Truth Social member with 96 followers recommended “tailgate parties” in a response to Seth Keshel, a pro-Trump influencer who blogs and gives public speeches on the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen.

How 'mule watchers' went from a Truth Social meme to a ballot box patrol

Keshel “rebutted” the post, which is Truth Social’s sharing feature, to its more than 50,000 followers on July 22, adding, “I like that idea too. All night patriotic tailgate parties at EVERY DROP BOX in America. Keshel’s message quickly caught fire on the pro-Trump internet, according to data shared with NBC News by Pyrra Technologies, a dark web and social media monitoring firm.

Within hours, the post was shared by influencers on Telegram who endorsed the post, urging Keshel to hold a “future powwow in Arizona, come early vote in October.”

Some Truth Social users have decided not to wait for the general election. A since-deleted Truth Social account named after QAnon’s slogan “Where We Go One We Go All” posted a photo of a party outside a drop box in Arizona on July 29, when early voting was available in the Governor’s and Senate primaries.

Truth Social users then began calling for more “mule parties” across the state, leading to an August 1 article on the far-right The Gateway Pundit website. Spurred on by the positive coverage, the idea spread across pro-Trump social media the next day to other pro-Trump platforms, like Gettr, TheDonald and the QAnon message board TheGreatAwakening.

“Things spiked around the time Gateway Pundit covered that first hatchback,” Pyrra CEO Welton Chang said.

Keshel told NBC News that while he’s never attended a tailgate party at a drop box, he’s sticking to his original idea.

“As for tailgate parties in every drop box: why not?” Keshel said, reiterating that drop box watchers should not participate in any unlawful behavior.

“If someone needs a lot of privacy to visit a ballot box and drop off a sealed envelope, that should be a pretty good sign that something unsavory is going on,” he said.

Eric H. Spencer, the state’s former chief election officer, told NBC News that legally “there is no objective test of intimidation” at drop boxes, but, did he says, voter intimidation “is when a combination of a number of different circumstances come together and create an overall feeling that deters the voter from wanting to vote.

Spencer said the drop box watchers wearing fatigues are “one of the clearest examples that conduct could have crossed the line into bullying that might be illegal.”

This month, Jennings’ Clean Elections USA volunteer team began bringing Keshel’s idea to life. On Oct. 17, Jennings posted a photo of a man whose vehicle had no license plate dropping off a single ballot, courtesy of his “drop box monitoring team.”

A day later, she posted a picture of a man she found suspicious because he “backed in to avoid plate detection” and “came out showing his back.”

“Someone gets tagged,” she wrote. “No talking to them.”

On Tuesday, Jennings posted photos of an open drop box in Center County, Pennsylvania, writing that “concerned citizens went with the sheriff to open these sealed boxes” and discovered “10 ballots already in the box”.

Michael Pipe, who as chairman of the County Board of Commissioners oversees elections in Center County, said in an email that because “the excitement, interest and participation in the election general of 2022 are at their height”, some voters cast their ballots before their official election. open.

“We had a handful of voters who were a little too impatient and prematurely dropped off their absentee or absentee ballots into our drop boxes. We will identify ways to avoid this for future elections,” he said.

Pipe said if ballots were inserted “before a drop box officially opens, the installation team returns the ballots to the elections office.” These ballots are then “segregated until adjudication at a future open meeting of the Center County Board of Elections.”

Jennings, with the help of several QAnon influencers on Truth Social, continued to push the Center County conspiracy theory forward throughout the week.

“We are an army,” Jennings said on Connecticut Centinal Podcast, a right-wing website. “We outnumber them. We are going to do it.

Ben Collins reported from New York and Vaughn Hillyard from Mesa, Arizona.

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