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AZ elections group sues to bar ballot-box watchers from using similar name

PHOENIX — The Citizens Clean Elections Commission is asking a judge to immediately bar a group that monitors ballot drop boxes and raises doubts about election results from using its name in Arizona.

The activities of Clean Elections USA are causing not only confusion but anger by Arizona residents who believe the commission is working to impede the right of people to vote by spreading misinformation about the election process, said Tom Collins, the commission’s executive director. In fact, Collins said, his office is getting angry calls from people wondering why a state agency would engage in activities like monitoring drop boxes, discouraging people from voting which he said is precisely the opposite message of the commission.

From a legal standpoint, Collins said the group, founded by Oklahoma resident Melody Jennings, is getting “a free ride on the substantial efforts that we have made to build our reputation and trust in the community.” And he said an immediate order is appropriate because of the upcoming election.

“’Clean Elections’ in Arizona means to tell the truth about elections,” he told Capitol Media Services.

“’Clean Elections USA does not stand for telling the truth about elections,” Collins said. “It stands for discouraging people from voting in Arizona.”

So Collins wants Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent Jennings from using the Clean Elections USA designation “in connection with past, current or future election-related activities in Arizona.’’

There was no immediate response from Clean Elections USA.

Jennings and her organization are no longer monitoring drop boxes in Arizona after a federal judge earlier this week issued his own temporary restraining order sharply limiting their activities. But attorney Eric Fraser, representing the commission, said that does not end the need for Blaney to act.

“Jennings is still using the mark ‘Clean Elections’ in connection with Arizona-related information and materials,” he said.

“There are still materials on the Clean Elections USA website about elections, in particular comments on social media about Arizona elections, all under the ‘Clean Elections’ mark,” Fraser said. “And that is continuing to cause actual confusion.”

It is that issue of confusion that Fraser said gives a court the ability to step in and order an immediate halt.

“Consider a private group publishing information under the mark ‘Board of Pharmacy,’” he told the judge. “The public should not face the risk of mistakenly believing that the information actually originated from the state Board of Pharmacy.”

Ditto, he said, to the confusion of a private entity posting information using any name similar to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program. And for the same reason, Fraser said it would be wrong to let someone involved in elections act and post information calling itself “County Recorder,” a move that would lead a reader to believe the message actually comes from a government official.

The lawsuit cites one posting in particular by Clean Elections USA titled “10+ Ways the Election was Rigged in Maricopa County.”

It cites the claims by Jovan Pulitzer, one of the people involved in what has been the widely debunked “audit’’ of the 2020 election ordered by Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott. Those include his conclusion that there were “hundreds of thousands of illegal votes” and “physical proof of both voter fraud and widespread election fraud in Maricopa County.”

All that, Collins said, is not only “misleading and inaccurate” but also causes people to believe these are the conclusions of the commission. What makes that important, he said, is that the commission is about more than providing public funds to statewide and legislative candidates who do not take campaign donations from special interests.

Collins said the commission also publishes nonpartisan information guides for voters to use. And it also hosts debates among candidates, with the videos of those still posted on the commission’s web site.

Having Jennings post her own claims in a manner that confuses voters, Collins said, undermines confidence in the accuracy and impartiality of the commission’s own works.

In seeking the restraining order, Fraser was careful to tell the judge the lawsuit does not seek to bar Jennings and her organization from engaging in election-related activities or exercising her constitutional rights.

“Instead, this case is only about whether she may use a mark that is confusingly similar to a state agency,” he said. “The answer is no, and her use must be enjoined.”

Blaney has scheduled a hearing for Monday. But Collins said the fact that is just a day before the election doesn’t diminish from the need for a court order to restrain the activities of Clean Elections USA.

“We’ve got, for a minimum, to have a record that you can’t just use the Clean Elections name for purposes that have nothing to do with Clean Elections in Arizona,’’ he said. And Collins said Tuesday may not be the last word from Clean Elections USA.

“I don’t believe that we’ll necessarily see the end of this as of Monday or Tuesday,” he said. “We’re in a different world right now” with some post-election activities.

President Joe Biden railed against said on Wednesday that threats by some Republican candidates to refuse to accept results from the November 8 elections if they lose is a threat to democracy, accusing election deniers of seeking to emulate former president Donald Trump.

Howard Fischer is a veteran journalist who has been reporting since 1970 and covering state politics and the Legislature since 1982. Follow him on Twitter at @azcapmedia or email azcapmedia@gmail.com.


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