How Armed Observers And Felony Convictions May Shape Ballot Access : The NPR Politics Podcast In Arizona, rampant voter fraud conspiracies have led people — some armed — to observe ballot boxes and polling sites, sometimes leading to confrontations. Will it keep people from voting? And between four and five million Americans are unable to vote because of a past felony conviction. A confusing patchwork of laws and reform efforts have led to confusion — and, in Florida, criminal charges of voter fraud.

This episode: political reporter Deepa Shivaram, political correspondent Ashley Lopez, and KJZZ reporter Ben Giles.

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How Armed Observers And Felony Convictions May Shape Ballot Access

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ALICIA: Hi. This is Alicia (ph) and Ninevermyn (ph). Say hi, Nineve (ph).

NINEVERMYN: (Inaudible).

ALICIA: Say hi.

NINEVERMYN: (Inaudible).

ALICIA: We're getting ready to go and meet our sailor who has been deployed these last seven months. This show was recorded at...

DEEPA SHIVARAM, HOST:

1:06 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, October 27, 2022.

ALICIA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Like, hopefully we'll be enjoying our time as a family again. OK. Here is the show. Say bye. Say bye?

NINEVERMYN: (Inaudible).

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SHIVARAM: Oh, bye, baby.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Oh, that's very sweet.

SHIVARAM: That was so cute. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover politics.

LOPEZ: I'm Ashley Lopez, and I also cover politics.

SHIVARAM: And Ben Giles is here from member station KJZZ in Arizona. Hey, Ben.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHIVARAM: And let's just start off with you in your state. Spurred on by election fraud conspiracy theorists in the State House, people have been camped out at voting drop boxes. And from what I understand, some of them have weapons. Why is this happening? What is going on?

GILES: Well, a generous description of it is it's kind of like a tailgate maybe 75 feet away from these ballot drop boxes. There's been two in particular in Maricopa County. That's the metro Phoenix region here in Arizona, where vigilantes, they've been described by as state lawmakers, are out there with cameras, with their phones. They're filming people depositing ballots into these drop boxes, in some cases, following them out to their cars, taking pictures of their license plates to try to gather evidence for, you know, some scheme to stuff the ballot box, as it were.

This has happened a couple of times. There's been a total of six complaints now that have been referred to local and federal law enforcement by the secretary of state here. They're sending voter intimidation complaints to the Arizona attorney general's office and the U.S. Justice Department. For example, this one drop box in the Phoenix area, voters were filmed and photographed. And somebody actually followed them in a car out of the parking lot.

SHIVARAM: Ben, this all sounds really terrifying, but is any of it illegal? Is this technically against the law?

GILES: Well, that's where there's this gray area that local law enforcement has been wrestling with. There is technically a 75-foot limit that must be kept between these election monitors and the ballot drop boxes that they're trying to keep tabs on. The question, though, is, when does videotaping and filming and photographing a voter cross the line into voter intimidation? And that's something that local law enforcement has struggled to figure out.

SHIVARAM: So a bit of a gray area on what can be done with that 75-foot difference. But if it's been referred to the DOJ and local law enforcement officials, what has been done? What have they said? Is anything happening or changing?

GILES: There haven't been any charges filed against anyone yet. But I do know locally, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has said it's started to devote resources to sort of monitor these activities at drop boxes, monitoring the monitors, so to speak. Here's Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone talking about that this week.

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PAUL PENZONE: And what do I see now as the sheriff of one of the biggest counties in the nation? I see that every day I'm dedicating a considerable amount of resources just to give people confidence that they can cast a vote safely. And that is absurd.

GILES: Yeah. And Secretary of State Katie Hobbs - she's a Democrat who's also running for governor this year - she has issued statements that, you know, in her mind, voter harassment might include gathering around drop boxes, questioning voters. Some voters have been reportedly accused of being mules. That's a reference to the widely discredited "2000 Mules" film that has inspired a lot of these drop box monitors. But the U.S. Justice Department, it remains to be seen - what steps are they going to take, what charges, if any, might be brought against someone based on these complaints? We really just got kind of broad platitudes from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in questions earlier this week. We haven't seen anything super concrete from the feds at this point.

SHIVARAM: At this point. OK. Yeah. I'm just imagining this situation. And you have, like, someone just walking to drop off their ballot. There's people hollering. And now there's like local law enforcement there as well. This is becoming a crowded and very scary situation. I wanted to zoom out a little bit and bring Ashley into this conversation. This has gone a little bit beyond Arizona, though. Voter intimidation has become an issue in other parts of the country as well. What does that look like usually?

LOPEZ: Yeah, I mean, that's right. And it's been going on even before votes started being cast in this midterm election. It pretty much started after the 2020 election. Groups like this have been accused of, you know, intimidating voters by knocking on their doors and checking to see if, you know, a voter lives where they registered to vote and asking them questions. In many cases, they have taken that information and challenged people's voter registration record with their local election official. I mean, there's evidence even of groups doing this in places, you know, obviously, like you would expect in places like Arizona and Georgia, where the 2020 election results were really close. But, you know, these groups have been doing this in places like Colorado and Texas, where results were not that close. So for some voters, they've been dealing with this kind of harassment and suspicion from some groups, like, even well before they were preparing their mail ballots.

SHIVARAM: Yeah. And I guess the root of all of this, like, I'm listening to both of you and wondering, like, why are people feeling so inspired to go out and monitor these polling locations?

GILES: Well, in Arizona, this is something that people were planning on well before the November general election. Back in May, we had a state senator encourage, in her words, vigilantes to camp out at the ballots, to use the ballot drop boxes, to use trail cams, if you will, to videotape people who are stuffing ballots into these boxes. I should add, it is legal in Arizona to deliver multiple ballots as long as those ballots are from within the same household. So there could be a circumstance where somebody thinks they caught a mule, and it's merely just somebody depositing maybe their wife and their kids' ballots as well. So there are situations that could get out of hand here.

But we're still hearing encouragement from, as you said, candidates for office this year. The secretary of state, the GOP nominee for that office here, Mark Finchem, is a election denier through and through. And he's actually been accusing the current secretary of state in the media of trying to disrupt the vigilantes, that they were trying to bully the vigilantes out of doing their work.

SHIVARAM: I mean, I know you said that there's, like, not any federal action yet, especially from the DOJ. And we haven't really seen any, like, criminal prosecutions on an individual level yet. But there's going to be some legal consequences for this, right? I mean, I think I've seen at least one lawsuit filed by a voting rights group against, you know, Clean Elections, which is the Steve Bannon backed group and some other local groups. I mean, there's going to be like some lawsuits coming out of all this, right?

GILES: Yeah. So far in Arizona, there's been two federal lawsuits filed related to these ballot drop box monitors. And they're both trying to do similar things. They're trying to put limitations on, you know, what these people can do, where they can be standing near the drop box. I think one lawsuit is trying to bump the distance from 75 feet back to 250 feet. But there was a hearing here on Wednesday. And the judge was a little reluctant to maybe issue some blanket order that would prevent people from monitoring the boxes at all. And that that does get back to that gray area. You know, there's nothing inherently wrong with sitting out there and filming. But when does that action cross the line into intimidation, and when is it trying - when is it actually deterring people from voting? That's what the testimony at that hearing was about, from people who felt like, you know, I was discouraged, or I was scared to cast my vote.

SHIVARAM: Ben Giles of KJZZ in Arizona. Thank you so much for joining us.

GILES: Thank you for having me.

SHIVARAM: All right. We're going to take a quick break. More obstacles to voting in a second.

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SHIVARAM: And we're back. Ashley, you've got new reporting out looking at the share of people in the U.S. who are ineligible to vote because of state laws around felony convictions. How many people are we talking about here in the country?

LOPEZ: So we're talking about roughly 4.6 million people in the U.S. who are unable - or, I guess, rather disqualified from casting a ballot in this year's elections because they have a prior felony conviction. And that amounts to about 2% of the country's voting-age population, which is pretty big. And what we know is that people of color are more likely to be among this group. So according to this report from the Sentencing Project, which released all this information this week about 1 in 19 African Americans of voting age are disenfranchised, which comes out to be a rate that's 3 1/2 times that of non-African Americans. And also, it's like kind of hard to figure out concrete ethnicity data because of reporting requirements. But the Sentencing Project also found out that at least 31 states reported a higher rate of disenfranchisement in their Latino population than in their general population.

SHIVARAM: And we know that the rules here, in terms of people who are, you know, previously convicted of a felony, whether or not they can vote, those rules are not uniform across the country. And there have been some states that are trying to restore voting rights to people who have been convicted of a felony and finished their court-ordered sentence. What is the situation there?

LOPEZ: Yeah, that's right. I mean, whether you're disenfranchised following a felony conviction and doing your time depends almost entirely on where you live. For example, in Massachusetts, only 0.15% of their population is disenfranchised due to a past conviction. But in Mississippi, their rate is 10%, much, much higher. And then there's like Vermont and Maine and Washington, D.C. - none of their population is disenfranchised because those jurisdictions actually allow people in prison to vote. And yet, you know, we have like 11 states in this country that outright deny voting rights to people even after they finish their full sentences, including parole and probation. So it just varies a vary wildly across the country.

SHIVARAM: And then in Florida, things get a little bit more confusing. So you mentioned that for roughly 4 million, 4.6 million people before, more than a million of those people are in Florida. But there's something complicated going on here because there was supposed to be a measure restoring voting rights for folks who have faced felony convictions in Florida, and then Republicans in the state legislature kind of changed that up a bit. Can you walk me through that?

LOPEZ: Yeah, that's right. So in 2018, Florida voters approved a ballot measure that basically restored voting rights under the Constitution to people who completed their prison sentences. But they made like an exception for people who were convicted of murder or a felony sex offense. But before that measure even went into effect, Republican lawmakers in the state legislature went in and passed this bill requiring returning citizens to fulfill basically every part of their sentence, which includes paying fees or fines of any kind in order to regain their voting rights. And this is complicated because the state doesn't even really keep track of who owes what. So basically, a small sliver of these returning citizens can't actually get their voting rights back because they can't figure out what they need to do to fulfill that requirement. And according to the Sentencing Project, the estimate about how many people are in this sort of, like, limbo created by this law is about 934,000 Floridians. And these are people, again, who have completed their sentences and remain disenfranchised because of the state's law.

SHIVARAM: Yeah. I'm just going to go and say the general state of this is not good. There's no tracking. This is really confusing. And so for someone who's not sure whether or not they can vote, have we seen any impact of what that looks like?

LOPEZ: Well, it's created some political and legal backlash for some people, right? It's kind of complicated. And I don't want to - like, it's one of those things that I could talk about for like half an hour. But it's - like, what we do know is that it has led to actual arrests, right? So state officials announced somewhat recently that they arrested 20 people and convicted them of voter fraud. And these are people who thought they could vote after doing time after a felony conviction. They were given a voter registration card and everything. But it turns out they actually weren't eligible. And at least one of those cases so far has been dismissed for jurisdictional issues in court. But, you know, we do know that roughly 19 people are facing criminal charges because they thought they could vote. And just because of, like, the weirdness of Florida's structure and other sort of confusion, they're now facing voter fraud charges.

SHIVARAM: I'm curious, though, with the Sentencing Project, the data that you have that you've looked at, this has changed over time. I mean, we are seeing changing numbers on how many people impacted by this can now vote. What does that look like?

LOPEZ: Yeah. You know, so 4.6 million people is like a big number. But I think it's important to give context, which is that this number has actually been dropping for the past few years. So since 2016, the number of people who have been disenfranchised due to a felony, a past felony conviction has declined by 24% since then. And this is because a lot of states, Republican and Democratic states, have been enacting policies that curtail this practice. And then also, state prison populations have been declining a little bit through the years. So in 2016, this was like - the number was 6.1 million people with felony convictions were disenfranchised, and this year, it's 4.6. So there has been a little bit of, you know, a decline through the years, that even being a big number, it's still a lot smaller than it was, you know, just a few years ago.

SHIVARAM: All right. We'll leave it there for today. I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover politics.

LOPEZ: And I'm Ashley Lopez. I also cover politics.

SHIVARAM: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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