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Judge sets boundaries on ballot-box watchers in Arizona

A federal judge issued an order Tuesday warning people who have been monitoring Arizona's drop-off boxes to not follow voters as they deposit their ballots.

PHOENIX — A federal judge has ordered a group that's been organizing the monitoring of Arizona's ballot drop-off boxes to publicly clarify to its followers that not everyone who deposits multiple ballots is committing voter fraud. 

U.S. District Judge Michael Liburdi additionally ordered Clean Elections USA on Tuesday not to have its associates follow voters as they drop off ballots or speak to voters unless they're spoken to first.  

The surveillance of ballot boxes has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after multiple complaints were filed with state officials by voters who felt intimidated by strangers who were allegedly photographing them as they dropped off ballots. 

A lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters of Arizona sought to stop groups like Clean Elections USA from encouraging the use of surveillance tactics that might intimidate voters. 

The League's attorneys presented witnesses in court on Tuesday to testify about how they felt uncomfortable and nervous when they were photographed and taunted by groups who were monitoring ballot boxes in Maricopa County. 

One voter told the judge he felt harassed and bullied by a group of people camped out near a drop-off box in Mesa. 

"We're hunting mules," the witness recalled a group member telling him at the Mesa drop-off site. 

The voter said another person asked him if he was a "mule" before he and his wife drove away. 

The "mule" narrative has gained traction in Arizona thanks, in part, to local leaders who supported conspiracies that the 2020 election was stolen due to ballot harvesters stuffing ballot boxes. 

Some groups around the United States have embraced a film that has been discredited called “2000 Mules” which claims people were paid to travel among drop boxes and stuff them with fraudulent ballots

Earlier this year, a state lawmaker publicly encouraged citizens to camp outside drop-off boxes and write down the license plate numbers of voters they suspected of being "mules."

Another witness testified Tuesday they worried the people camped outside ballot boxes would falsely accuse them of being a mule. The same witness said their spouse was "nervous" to exit the car after seeing the group of watchers. 

Other witnesses told the judge they decided not to use the county's drop-off boxes after hearing reports of voters being photographed by ballot watchers.

Judge Liburdi's temporary restraining order instructs Clean Elections USA to issue the following public statement to its followers:

“It is not always illegal to deposit multiple ballots in a ballot drop box. It is legal to deposit the ballot of a family member, household member, or person for whom you are the caregiver. Here are the rules for ballot drop boxes by which I ask you to abide.”

The judge said his order shall take effect immediately and remain in effect for the next 14 days.

This lawsuit was folded into another case before Liburdi.

On Friday, the judge said Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans failed to make its argument against Clean Elections USA. A second plaintiff, Voto Latino, was removed from the case.

RELATED: Arizona GOP legislators rolled out the red carpet for '2,000 Mules.' Then law enforcement gave the movie what amounts to two thumbs down

RELATED: Brnovich seeks probe of election integrity group

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