How conspiracy film '2000 Mules' fueled drop box surveillance
A voter places a ballot in a drop box outside of the Maricopa County Elections Department on August 02, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona
A voter places a ballot in a drop box outside of the Maricopa County Elections Department on August 02, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona

Washington (AFP) - The people spending nights staking out and filming ballot drop boxes in Arizona say their task is to save democracy from the "mules" that countless Americans believe rigged the 2020 election against Donald Trump.

But to poll officials, voting rights advocates and many citizens in a state where early voting is common, the self-appointed ballot watchers are a physical representation of how a disinformation-laden documentary is making its mark on next month's US midterm elections.

Described by some as a vigilante parade, the watchers stand accused of intimidating voters at drop boxes -- secure bins used in many states to submit a ballot.

The film energizing them is far-right commentator Dinesh D'Souza’s "2000 Mules." It advanced the conspiracy theory that ballot-trafficking "mules" smuggled fraudulent votes into the boxes to swing the presidency to Joe Biden.

Reached by AFP, D'Souza defended his production and its sticking power -- and said those surveilling ballot boxes are "patriots, who are worried about fraud this time around."

Legal challenges to organizations spearheading the ballot watching arose after Arizona's secretary of state referred several voter intimidation complaints to law enforcement, including one from a voter claiming they were accused of "being a mule."

"The last two years have been a wild goose chase for those seeking to prove that elections are rigged," said Jared Holt, senior research manager at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. 

"What has differentiated the mules claims from other conspiracy theories is that the solution activists have taken away from them is to take matters into their own hands."

Real-world impact

"2000 Mules" followed debunked stories of fraud about everything from permanent marker pens allegedly used to spoil ballots to machines switching votes, and court rejections of dozens of lawsuits seeking to overturn the election. 

Experts panned the film for leaps in logic, circumstantial evidence and a flawed analysis of cell phone data. Trump's own attorney general called it "indefensible." 

One voter the film framed as a "mule" was found by investigators to have legally deposited ballots for his family -- and is now suing D'Souza.

Signature verification, voter registration lists and other checks prevent voter fraud, including in states where it is legal for others to return someone's ballot.

"Those measures are why we didn't have any evidence from 2020 of fraud at ballot drop boxes, despite the effort to create the impression," said Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Rutgers University. 

"You could make out a ballot for Mickey Mouse, but if Mickey Mouse isn't registered to vote, they're not going to count the ballot."

Still, "2000 Mules" ignited Trump's base with its May release. Screenings took place across the country, including at the former president's Mar-a-Lago residence.

"Ballot mules" were mentioned more than 324,000 times on Twitter between the first reference to "2000 Mules" in January and October -- and the movie over 2.3 million times -- according to Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company.

The discourse included plans for the stakeouts now under way.

Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, tweeted in July: "Potential Mules beware: we are watching drop boxes throughout the state."

Days later, a Telegram post viewed 72,000 times called for "all night patriot tailgate parties for EVERY DROP BOX IN AMERICA."

Clean Elections USA, one group behind the Arizona efforts, says on its website its mission is to prevent the fraud imagined in D'Souza's film.

"Just your presence alone & the mule knowing they will be caught on ur multiple cameras is enough deterrent to make them shrink back into the darkness," said founder Melody Jennings, who has embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory, in August on Truth Social, Trump's platform.

But photos and rumors spread about voters could inspire more misinformation, said Minnite, who authored a book on voter fraud.

"People will be guided into seeing it as evidence of fraud if they already believe it's happening," she said. "It's impossible to put that genie back in the bottle." 

Jennings did not respond to AFP's enquiries.

Politicians noticing

Some politicians have boosted the activity, including Republican Mark Finchem, who is running to control Arizona's elections as secretary of state, and Trump.

After Jennings posted on Truth Social that drop boxes were overrun with "mules getting there and doing their thing," Trump amplified it to his 4.38 million followers.

He later shared Jennings' posts featuring photos of people using drop boxes.

"Republicans from top to bottom bear responsibility," said Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, whose organization is backing the lawsuits in Arizona. 

"It's not just the Kari Lake... It is from top to bottom a party that has abandoned democracy."