Two men, one armed, who filmed voters dropping off ballots in Littleton on Nov. 2 were “first amendment auditors” and not cited by police, city and county officials said.
The men, whose names were not immediately available, drew the attention of county staff as they filmed voters dropping off ballots outside the Arapahoe County administration building on South Prince Street, said county spokesperson Luc Hatlestad. One of the men was carrying a holstered handgun and wearing a “tactical” vest, Hatlestad said.
“Our staff asked them what was going on, and someone inside the building called police,” Hatlestad said.
Responding officers determined the men were “first amendment auditors,” said Cmdr. Trent Cooper, Littleton Police Department spokesman.
“First amendment auditors” are activists who film encounters with public officials, according to the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency, or CIRSA.
“If the encounter results in an actual or perceived violation of the auditor's First Amendment or other protected rights, then the video likely will be posted on social media and/or serve as the basis for a claim or suit,” a CIRSA memo on the phenomenon reads in part. “A violation may come about if the auditor is denied the right to take photos or videos in a public place, or is detained for `suspicious' activity or other reasons.”
Cooper said the men appeared to clearly understand the limits of their legal rights, and that it's not against the law to open carry guns or film people outside a government building.
Colorado law makes it illegal “to impede, prevent, or otherwise interfere with the free exercise of the elective franchise of any elector.”
Hatlestad said three voters came inside the building to report the men outside, but he was not aware of any voters who were intimidated out of dropping off ballots.
Police are not aware of the men speaking to any voters or stopping any voters from dropping off their ballots, Cooper said.
“The goal of these guys is to get people to violate their rights,” Cooper said. “This guy's carrying a gun, wearing tactical gear — he knows that's going to make people uncomfortable. It's an attempt to elicit a confrontation. If nobody takes the bait, eventually they get bored and leave, which is essentially what happened here.”
Police did not ask the men to leave, Cooper said, though they eventually left on their own after about an hour.
A spokesman for Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said the incident is under investigation.
The Colorado Secretary of State's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
First amendment auditors have made headlines many times in Colorado in recent years, including for disrupting city council meetings, winning settlements for wrongful detention, and in one instance, allegedly threatening to kill a judge.
Hatlestad said anyone who sees anything suspicious at a ballot drop box or polling place should report it to elections officials on site or call the voter hotline at 303-795-4511.
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