The town that debunked voter fraud movie braces for Election Day

A tense 20-second video sparked a storm: The former mayor of the farm town of St. Louis, Arizona, was filmed handling another voter’s ballot during a local primary two years ago. She appeared to make some marks, then sealed it up and handed a small stack of ballots to another woman to turn in.

The moment outside the polling station in August 2020 propelled the town along the southern border into the epicenter of a stolen election conspiracy theory unlikely to be the inspiration for the debunked voter fraud film ‘2000 Mules’ source.

Activists peddling misinformation and backed by former President Donald J. Trump flocked to St. Louis. Arizona’s Republican attorney general opened an investigation into the vote, which is still ongoing. Former Mayor Guillermina Fuentes was sentenced to 30 days in prison and two years of probation for abuse of the ballot — or “ballot harvesting,” as the attorney general calls it — a felony under Arizona law .

Mrs. Fuentes is one of four women in St. Louis who are now accused of illegally collecting ballots during the primary, including the second woman featured in the video. But in St. Louis, there were no widespread allegations of voter fraud related to the presidential election. Free voting rights groups and many St. Louis residents say investigators, prosecutors and anti-election activists are terrorizing voters and falsely linking their communities to conspiracy theories about rampant election fraud across the country. The movie “Two Thousand Mules” endorsed by Mr. Zhang. Trump has helped maintain those claims and is often cited by candidates across the country who reject the election.

But the incident also sparked a long-simmering and genuine frustration with St. Louis’s grip on politics. Some residents cheered what they said was a long overdue crackdown on local corruption, which they said was a real problem.

It all fuels division and unease in the tight-knit city of about 37,000 people where Cesar Chavez died harvesting lettuce and broccoli.

Now, many here say they are afraid to vote or help vote in the midterms for fear of being interviewed by investigators, being monitored by activists, or violating Arizona’s relatively new ballot abuse law, which largely Prohibition on representatives from collecting ballots or voters other than family members or roommates.

The practice, legal in a dozen states, is often used to help home-bound seniors or people in low-income communities and rural areas vote. Conservative critics have called it a potential source of voter manipulation and fraud, even though their allegations of widespread election fraud are unfounded. The term “mule” or “ballot harvesting” is used to describe the practice of illegally transporting other voters’ ballots to polling places.

“They’re scared,” Luis Marquez, a retired police officer and school board member who is running for re-election in St. Louis, said of voters. “They felt that if they did something wrong, they would be crucified.”

When early voting began last month, Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced that two more St. Louis residents — one of whom is a current city councilman — have been indicted for ballot abuse during the 2020 primary. Separately, the Yuma County Sheriff is investigating 26 potential voting cases in the county in southwestern Arizona.

Local Baptist pastor Jose Castro has been trying to convince his congregation to vote. Two longtime friends, Tere Varela and Maria Robles, usually visit the senior center during elections to guide Spanish-speaking retirees through the ballot. But they said they planned to leave in November.

“We don’t want to help,” the woman said. Roberts said one recent afternoon. “Fear.”

“Is that the purpose?” Mrs. Varela asked. “Stop us from voting?”

As Election Day approaches, St. Louis offers a glimpse into the tensions brewing in this strained democracy. More than 33 million early ballots have been cast nationwide so far, with few reported problems, but volatility: Election workers are threatened, poll watchers are already on guard at ballot boxes, and elected officials are preparing to challenge legality Sexual interim results.

Arizona is a shining spot for Mr. Trump filed voter fraud charges immediately after the 2020 presidential election, and there has been a scene of vote audits by divided parties. Crowds of angry, armed Trump supporters gathered every night outside the election office.

Since then, Republican candidates for public office across the state have spread lies about election fraud, with some voters filing complaints that they were filmed and questioned by strangers at the ballot box. Volunteer polling observers, some masked or armed, said they were there for “election security.” Their emergence is part of an organized national effort by conservative groups fueled by lies that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. trump card.

Authorities in the Phoenix area have stepped up their security response. The Maricopa County sheriff has referred both incidents to prosecutors and said his officers will sit outside polling places “if we have to do it to protect democracy.”

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, also Arizona’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has referred 18 complaints of voter intimidation to the Justice Department. A federal judge in Arizona on Tuesday restricted election surveillance activists from filming voters, carrying weapons near polling places or spreading election lies online.

Voting upheaval in St. Louis erupted shortly after the 2020 primary. That year, the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office announced on August 2. It has launched an investigation in coordination with the attorney general’s office after local election officials received complaints about election tampering.

Some of those complaints stem from two local Republicans, David Lara and Gary Garcia Snyder.

After they complained to law enforcement, Mr. Snyder and Mr. Laura said the two leaders reached out to them through True the Vote, a Houston-based conservative vote-monitoring group that has been promoting false claims about rampant fraud for years. The group’s leaders, Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips, travel to Arizona to meet later in 2020. Snyder and Mr. Lara, the men said.

Inspired by what they heard in Yuma, True the Vote focused on proving the existence of an elaborate state conspiracy to rig the outcome of the presidential election through voter fraud—a theory that has since been debunked by experts, government agencies and the media.

This spring, conservative media company Salem Media Group released the women-focused 2,000 Mules in partnership with conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza. Mr. Engelbrecht Phillips and their claims. In the film, an unidentified woman from St. Louis appears who says the city’s elections have been “fixed” for years by local politicians through a cash-for-vote program.

Mrs. In December 2020, former St. Louis Mayor Fuentes and a woman seen on video with her, Alma Juarez, were charged with violating Arizona’s ballot abuse laws. They each pleaded guilty to one count of ballot abuse earlier this year for accepting four ballots from other St. Louis residents.

Mrs. Fuentes became the first person in Arizona to be jailed under a law enacted in 2016. Fuentes’ attorney, Anne Chapman, criticized the verdict as an “unjust result of political prosecution.”

Activists with voter rights group Arizona Voter Empowerment Task Force say the law banning “ballot collection” has the effect of criminalizing ballot collection that helps older residents and people with disabilities in rural and low-income communities such as St. Louis make them votes to vote.

While more than 80 percent of Arizona voters routinely vote early, many by mail, St. Louis has no home mail delivery, limited public transportation and many without cars, making voting even more difficult.

Mrs. Fuentes has many admirers in St. Louis, who praise her for her struggle to register and vote.

She first ran for office in 1994 and served multiple terms on the city council, and was still serving on the school board when she was sentenced to 30 days in prison last month. Now, she will be barred from holding elected office or voting.

“My mom is not a criminal,” said her daughter, Lizette Esparza. “This is a witch hunt.”

Mrs. Fuentes was also charged with forgery and conspiracy, but ultimately pleaded guilty only to charges related to ballot collection. A sentencing report from her defence team said she was “deeply remorseful for her involvement in this matter” but did not commit any fraudulent acts. Her lawyer wrote in a video on Election Day. Fuentes processed another voter’s ballot, and she was actually checking that the oval was filled correctly.

But other residents say the criminal investigation has revealed the real corruption and stark politics within their city. In 2012, for example, Ms. Fuentes and others challenged political opponents to serve based on her limited English proficiency.

In interviews, several residents said they had become cynical about politics in St. Louis. They feel that local officials are hoarding power, exchanging votes for government jobs and benefits. In a court filing, prosecutors in the attorney general’s office said Ms. Fuentes said she had been “running a modern political machine to try to influence the outcome of the St. Louis municipal election by collecting votes through illegal methods.”

Nieves Riedel, who runs a prominent homebuilding business, is a Democrat who refuses to lie about the 2020 election. But she is also convinced that some leaders in her city have been tilting local campaigns for years and manipulating voters to vote for powerful incumbents.

“Is there voter fraud in St. Louis? Yes,” she said. “But not at the national level. It’s small town politics.”

Over the summer, Ms. Riddle won the election to become St. Louis’ next mayor. She said she was concerned about improving clogged two-lane roads and providing better jobs and colleges to keep young people from leaving. She said she was dismayed but not surprised to see outsiders grabbing trouble in her city for their own purposes.

“Both sides are using this to settle accounts and prove points,” Ms. Riddle said. “I can assure you that neither side will care about people in St. Louis.”

As voting begins in St. Louis, candidates for city council and school board knock on doors and plant campaign signs on desert roads, Mr. Laura said he would look for violations again. He is coordinating monitoring of the main ballot box in St. Louis.

“We have our people,” he said, but declined to specify their activities more precisely. “We don’t want to tip the enemy.”

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