A “patriot group” in Arizona called Lions of Liberty—which is closely tied to the Oath Keepers—is organizing their supporters to go out and conduct round-the-clock surveillance of ballot dropboxes during the midterm elections. It’s the latest sign that groups with clear ties to extremists, galvanized by conspiracy theories, are seeking to take matters into their own hands this election season.
Ballot dropboxes have become the central focus of election fraud conspiracy theorists, thanks to the debunked documentary 2,000 Mules, by right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza.
That film claims that a shadowy network of hired “mules” in contested states were hired by nonprofits as part of a giant ballot trafficking operation to stuff dropboxes with fake absentee ballots, all with the goal of stealing the 2020 election from Donald Trump. The film was released in May, six months before the midterms, reinvigorated the “Stop the Steal” movement and inspired vigilante efforts around the country—in some cases spearheaded by innocuous-sounding groups that obscure the known ideologues and extremists behind them.
Lions of Liberty is the “political arm” of a newly-formed nonprofit called Yavapai County Preparedness Team (YCPT), led by the former vice president of Arizona’s Oath Keeper chapter, Jim Arroyo. At a meeting in August that was posted to YouTube, Arroyo explained that they had turned the Oath Keeper chapter into a corporate nonprofit under the name of YCPT, which in turn gave them the ability to get a bank account.
In an email to VICE News, Arroyo said that the Arizona chapter officially broke ties with the national leadership of the notorious militia group after it was implicated in the violent riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Five members are currently standing trial for seditious conspiracy charges, including the group’s leader Stewart Rhodes. Prosecutors allege that Rhodes and his cohort plotted an “armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy.”) However, they had been operating more or less independently from the national organization for about four years, said Arroyo; Rhodes broke ties with the Arizona contingent after they declined to assist in armed vigilante activities at the border, out of respect for Border Patrol.
Arroyo, who insists YCPT is not a militia, led that August meeting in an Oath Keepers hat and T-shirt. He explained to the crowd that he would need volunteers to monitor ballot drop boxes, and that he was particularly concerned about the period between midnight and 6 a.m. “If you saw the movie 2,000 Mules” he said, that timeframe was “when the bulk of the problems happen, that’s when we will be on scene with a camera and flashlight.” Arroyo told VICE News that some volunteers might be armed. “This is Arizona; almost everyone is armed, all the time,” he said. “That's not a big deal here.”
Arroyo said he will likely pick up a couple of shifts to monitor dropboxes.
In the August meeting, Arroyo assured members of the crowd that they’d be welcome to continue wearing their Oath Keepers merch, even while conducting ballot dropbox surveillance. “Your shirts and hats are what tell the world you’re not ashamed to be an Oath Keeper, or afraid of the government just because of that crap that happened on January the 6th, which was completely staged. It was a setup,” Arroyo said, before acknowledging, “Yeah, they did something stupid beyond all belief.”
During the meeting, Arroyo also stoked fears of an imminent civil war. “This is not the same as (Black Lives Matter) and George Floyd or antifa. This is a direct confrontation with the federal government,” he said. “This is now the federal government of the United States of America in direct conflict with its own citizenry.”
The Lions of Liberty describe themselves as a “resolute nucleus of concerned, passionate conservative patriots who are determined to correct the course for our country which has been hijacked and undermined by global elites, communists, leftists, deep state bureaucrats, and fake news.” Their goal? “To bring God back to our leadership and win this spiritual battle for the soul of our nation.”
The Lions of Liberty aren’t the only ones calling for and coordinating vigilante activity around the midterm elections.
Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a Seattle-based nonprofit, has been closely tracking this trend.
“The threat of groups of far-right vigilantes, some potentially armed, fueled by Big Lie misinformation, lurking near ballot dropboxes, could potentially deter some from casting their votes,” warned Burghart. “The possibility of conflict in such a scenario is real.”
Burghart added that “dropbox vigilantism” perpetuates unsubstantiated claims of rampant voter fraud that “keep the Big Lie alive and further erodes confidence in elections and democracy.”
Former Washington state Rep. Matt Shea runs On Fire Ministries, an apocalyptic Christian nationalist church in Spokane, and has been leading “training sessions” for prospective volunteers to monitor dropboxes.
“We are doing something for the community. How many of you watched 2,000 Mules? Raise your hands,” said Shea during a service in September. “I think it would be good if we had some folks who were certified, trained, dropbox observers, in Spokane County.” The training took place on Sept. 30.
Shea is a particularly controversial character; a 2019 investigation by the Washington Legislature concluded that he’d “participated in an act of domestic terrorism” for his involvement in three armed conflicts against the federal government between 2014 and 2016, including the Bundys’ armed standoffs in Nevada and Oregon and an armed conflict with the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department in Priest River, Idaho.
And a group called True the Vote, which was involved in the 2,000 Mules documentary, is also teaming up with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) to monitor dropboxes nationwide. CSPOA is headed by Richard Mack, who has long-standing ties to the militia movement, including to the Oath Keepers.
“The plan from national Big Lie groups, like True the Vote, is to use those “voter fraud” claims to get sympathetic sheriffs to intervene in elections,” said Burghart.
Dropbox surveillance efforts started getting underway earlier this summer, during the primaries, described then by the New York Times as a “nascent” movement. In some places, like in Arizona, groups were planning dropbox “tailgate parties.” One person with a handle referencing QAnon posted a photo of their party to Trump’s platform Truth Social, and credited Seth Keshel, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and conspiracy theorist, for the idea.
Brian Cates, a columnist for the fringe-right publication The Epoch Times, has long been a proponent of the “Big Lie” and has been riling up his more than 120,000 followers on Telegram around the idea of taking matters into their own hands this election season.
“The time for calling for people to just show up to vote is long past. We’re moving into another completely different era,” he wrote. “Citizens will be given the tools to monitor all the dropboxes and engage in massive real-time information operations in order to bring about election integrity.”
“Forewarned is forearmed,” he added. “An army of patriots is going to force compliance with the election laws in their states before these next elections are held.”
One of the primary examples of “evidence” of nefarious activity offered by 2,000 Mules was surveillance videos that appeared to show individuals posting multiple ballots into a dropbox, including in Georgia. Submitting multiple ballots on behalf of other people is known as “ballot harvesting,” and it is legal in several states, including Georgia.
However, the fact that submitting multiple ballots has been presented as a telltale sign of election fraud lays the groundwork for possible confrontations between dropbox “monitors” and people who are acting entirely within the law. (Right-wing political commentator Monica Matthews, from Clear Talk Media, even tried to remind her followers of this fact. “Before you all plan Dropbox tailgate parties to monitor the integrity of your elections- MAKE SURE you check your new state laws. Some states allow harvesting,” she wrote on Twitter in August. “Confronting people at dropboxes could land you in jail.”)
Earlier this summer, ahead of Washington’s August 2 primary, some signs began showing up near dropboxes near Seattle saying “This Ballot Dropbox is Under Surveillance” and warned of criminal penalties for ballot harvesting, the Seattle Times reported. However, it’s also legal in Washington to drop off multiple ballots at once on behalf of family members.
The signs also had a QR code that allowed passersby to report “suspicious activity” to the King County Republican Party (whose chair disavowed the vigilante activity). Amber Krabach, a GOP activist, QAnon conspiracy theorist and member of the Kings County Republicans’ “Election integrity Committee”, was behind the signs. The county elections office asked the sheriff’s department to investigate whether Krabach had broken a state law barring civilians from influencing someone’s vote within 25 feet of a ballot dropbox. They didn’t press charges, but they did refer the matter to the FBI.
All these vigilante efforts are taking place against a backdrop of increasingly incendiary rhetoric from GOP figures and far-right forums alike, about what will happen if they get even so much of a whiff of “voter fraud” this election season.
“If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place—and it’s bloodshed,” said ex-Congressman Madison Cawthorn at a GOP event in North Carolina this summer.
On Patriots.win, a pro-Trump forum, some have discussed the need to bring guns to monitor dropboxes. Someone shared an article from the right-wing Gateway Pundit claiming they’d found evidence of massive voter fraud in Detroit during the 2020 election. “We need people waiting for that shit this time and take that shit at gun point,” someone responded. “Use walkie-talkies and don't park anywhere near there or use fake plates and a vehicle wrap.”
Others, like Arroyo from YCPT, have stoked fears of an imminent civil war instigated by the Democrats. “Keep your powder dry until after the midterms,” one person wrote. “No matter what, they are going to try like hell to provoke a civil war before then.”
“Hold the line till Nov… then do whatever the fuck you gotta do,” another user on patriots.win wrote.