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Federal judge in Arizona declines restraining order to block group from surveilling voters

(NEW YORK) — A federal judge in Arizona Friday declined to issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to keep several people accused of voter intimidation from gathering near ballot boxes and surveilling voters.

In the lawsuit, which was filed on Monday, the nonprofit advocacy groups Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino accused ten unnamed individuals — as well as Clean Elections USA and the group’s founder, Melody Jennings — of carrying out surveillance in a “coordinated vigilante intimidation campaign” at ballot drop box locations, “with the express purpose of deterring voters … from depositing their ballots.”

The suit accused them of violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.

In his ruling, the judge said he found that “defendants’ conduct does not fall into any traditionally recognized category of voter intimidation” and that the plaintiffs lacked “evidence that Defendants’ conduct constitutes a true threat.”

Voto Latino and Arizona Alliance also filed motions asking the court to grant a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to bar the defendants from “gathering within sight of drop boxes; from following, taking photos of, or otherwise recording voters or prospective voters, those assisting voters or prospective voters, or their vehicles at or around a drop box; and from training, organizing, or directing others to do the same.”

In his order denying both motions, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Liburdi said he “acknowledge[d] that Plaintiffs and many voters are legitimately alarmed by the observers,” but ultimately ruled that the requested preliminary injunctive relief “implicates serious First Amendment considerations.”

“An individual’s right to vote is fundamental. But so too is an individual’s right to engage in political speech, assemble peacefully, and associate with others,” Liburdi wrote, adding that the defendants were not acting with the intention of discouraging people from voting, but by a desire “to prevent what [the defendants] perceive to be widespread illegal voting and ballot harvesting” so “that persons who attempt to break Arizona’s anti-ballot harvesting law will be exposed.”

“On this record, therefore, the Court finds that a reasonable observer could interpret the conduct as conveying some sort of message, regardless of whether the message has any objective merit,” which falls under the protection of the First Amendment, the judge said.

Following the ruling, attorneys for the plaintiffs appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Neither Jennings nor Clean Elections USA immediately responded to ABC News’ request for comment.

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