One night last month, on the recommendation of a man known online as Captain K, a small group gathered in an Arizona parking lot and waited in folding chairs, hoping to catch the people they believed were trying to destroy American democracy by submitting fake early voting ballots.
Captain K — which is what Seth Keshel, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who espouses voting fraud conspiracy theories, calls himself — had set the plan in motion. In July, as states like Arizona were preparing for their primary elections, he posted a proposal on the messaging app Telegram: “All-night patriot tailgate parties for EVERY DROP BOX IN AMERICA.” The post received more than 70,000 views.
Similar calls were galvanizing people in at least nine other states, signaling the latest outgrowth from rampant election fraud conspiracy theories coursing through the Republican Party.
n the nearly two years since former President Donald J. Trump catapulted false claims of widespread voter fraud from the political fringes to the conservative mainstream, a constellation of his supporters have drifted from one theory to another in a frantic but unsuccessful search for evidence.
Many are now focused on ballot drop boxes — where people can deposit their votes into secure and locked containers — under the unfounded belief that mysterious operatives, or so-called ballot mules, are stuffing them with fake ballots or otherwise tampering with them. And they are recruiting observers to monitor countless drop boxes across the country, tapping the millions of Americans who have been swayed by bogus election claims.
In most cases, organizing efforts are nascent, with supporters posting unconfirmed plans to watch local drop boxes. But some small-scale “stakeouts” have been advertised using Craigslist, Telegram, Twitter, Gab and Truth Social, the social media platform backed by Mr. Trump. Several websites dedicated to the cause went online this year, including at least one meant to coordinate volunteers.
Some high-profile politicians have embraced the idea. Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, asked followers on Twitter whether they would “be willing to take a shift watching a drop box to catch potential Ballot Mules.”
Supporters have compared the events to harmless neighborhood watches or tailgate parties fueled by pizza and beer. But some online commenters discussed bringing AR-15s and other firearms, and have voiced their desire to make citizens’ arrests and log license plates. That has set off concerns among election officials and law enforcement that what supporters describe as legal patriotic oversight could easily slip into illegal voter intimidation, privacy violations, electioneering or confrontations.