By: Jordan Uter

We often think of institutions as somehow solid and durable objects, but institutions are no more than stable patterns of human beliefs, norms, and interactions. When enough people simply decide to stop behaving according to those patterns and norms, the institutions themselves change or dissolve. And what we are witnessing in America is a moment in which some leaders and many followers are changing their patterns of behavior—ejecting older norms and rules—in ways that may result in a democratic breakdown.” – Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at Harvard Kennedy School

If you don’t view the government as legitimate, then do you view the laws it creates as legitimate? And so then, are you subject to follow them?” – Lisa Bryant, Professor of Political Science at California State, Fresno

American democracy finds itself on the precipice of instability. Our collective distrust of democratic institutions is growing. While some cynicism is traced to a lack of transparency or growing inequality, many American citizens lack confidence in our elections’ fundamental integrity. Experts worry that further election distrust can erode our democracy and the rule of law. Widespread election denial amongst conservatives has led to vigilante election monitors intimidating voters at ballot drop boxes, the insurrection at the United States Capitol, and further regression in voting rights by Republican-held state legislatures. It is not hyperbole to say our fundamental rights as citizens in a democracy are at stake.

In May 2022, a documentary film titled 2000 Mules was released nationwide. The documentary baselessly claims that the 2020 election of President Biden was due to voter fraud in five swing states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The documentary supports the conspiracy theory through surveillance footage of drop boxes in Georgia and “geotracking” data concluding that Democrats paid “mules” to stuff ballot boxes with illegal votes. Fact-checkers have widely and consistently debunked the methodology and subsequent conclusions. Despite this, the documentary has inspired millions of conservative voters to “stake out” election drop boxes to catch voter fraud.

Based on the information in the documentary, some Arizona conservatives, under the direction of the right-wing group Clean Elections USA, launched an effort to surveil election drop boxes in Maricopa and Yavapai counties. While armed, these self-appointed election monitors would harass and record voters. The group intended to deter voters from using drop boxes by exposing their personal information online, such as their name, car, and license plate number, while baselessly accusing the voter of election fraud. Since Clean Elections, USA’s activities began, eighteen separate voter intimidation complaints have been lodged to local officials. On October 25, a lawsuit was brought by the League of Women Voters of America against Clean Elections USA, alleging that the defendants violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The plaintiffs sought an immediate injunction, preventing defendants from intimidating Arizona voters.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices adopted by southern states. Practices that were banned included literacy tests, poll taxes and voter intimidation methods.  Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides:

“No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote, or intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for urging or aiding any person to vote or attempt to vote, or intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for exercising any powers or duties under section 3(a), 6, 8, 9, 10, or 12(e).”

The plaintiffs argue that the defendants have violated Section 11(b) by spreading misinformation, accusing voters of engaging in election fraud, and encouraging their agents to arm themselves or wear paraphernalia that associates them with extremist organizations, among other claims.

Reversing a previous ruling in a related case, Judge Michael Liburdi granted a motion for a temporary restraining order against the defendants on November 1. The order banned Clean Elections, USA, from entering within seventy-five feet of ballot boxes or the entrance to which a ballot box is located. Moreover, the order bans the organization and its agents from openly carrying firearms within 250 feet of ballot drop boxes for fourteen days.

While this particular case is terrifying, it does not exist in a vacuum. Since the 2020 election, President Donald Trump and his conservative supporters have propagated unsubstantiated claims that the election was stolen and embarked on a months-long campaign to undermine the election. He openly asked state election officials to commit election fraud, conspired with members of Congress to choose “alternate electors,” and pressured the Department of Justice to investigate unsubstantiated election fraud claims, among other impeachable offenses. This authoritarian campaign to subvert the people’s will reached its apex on January 6 with conservatives storming the United States Capitol.

Conspiracy theories – like the one presented in 2000 Mules – alleging that conservatives lose elections due to large-scale voter fraud have been proven untrue. Unfortunately, this rotten idea persists in the minds of conservative voters and politicians. The continued belief that our elections are unsafe has emboldened Republican legislatures to pass laws eroding our right to vote. For example, in Arizona, Governor Ducey recently signed legislation requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship for presidential elections or to vote by mail for any elected office. The new law deliberately challenges a 2013 Supreme Court decision blocking the state from requiring proof of citizenship in federal elections.

Moreover, Arizona has passed SB1485 under the guise of election protection. This law removes Arizona voters from the Permanent Early Voting Lists if they have not voted in the last four elections. Due to policies like the ones enacted in Arizona, the European think tank International IDEA has labeled the United States as a “backsliding democracy” for the first time.

A systemic movement is underway to intimidate and suppress the votes of those who dream of an equitable and just America. If democracy had a bat signal, it would be up now. It is waiting on us to come to its defense. Our collective rights were earned through intentional struggle against kings, white supremacists, misogynists, ableists and homophobes. These natural rights did not come to us naturally. As citizens we not only have a duty to exercise our right to vote, but we have a duty to protest in the face of tyranny, to attend local school board meetings, to serve on juries when called, and to give back to our communities. These responsibilities are essential to promote the common good.

For too long we have abdicated our role as citizens; it is in that absence where the shadow of authoritarianism is cultivated. Regardless of the reason, it is incumbent upon us to pick up the mantle of service to our community, in whatever way we can. I invite you to become an active participant in our democracy. I invite you to struggle for justice. I invite you to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity. As President Obama said in 2017, “America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”

Jordan (he/him) is currently a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. His legal interests include criminal justice, voting rights, and issues related to data privacy. His personal interests include basketball, yoga, and meditation.