For local officials, the fight against election lies never ends | Analysis

Election officials are working across state and partisan lines to earn back voters’ trust

By: - March 3, 2023 6:30 am
A voting sign in Philadelphia

A voting sign in Philadelphia. (Capital-Star photo by Michala Butler)

By Matt Vasilogambros

State and local election officials across the country have begun pursuing strategies to combat election lies ahead of the 2024 presidential election: They’re meeting with community organizations, posting social media videos and even inviting skeptics to visit election offices in efforts to “pre-bunk” falsehoods they know are coming.

The threat, officials said, has not gone away since former President Donald Trump and his allies falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged and tainted by widespread voter fraud. The next presidential election is more than a year away, but it’s never too early to invest in spreading the truth about elections, officials said.

Election officials are still facing harassment and violent threats, as some candidates who lost in the midterms continue to make false claims, and election conspiracies involving ballot drop boxes and election equipment saturate social media. Some state lawmakers, wanting to capitalize on this misinformation, are attempting to strengthen their power to potentially overturn the outcomes of future elections.

Election officials are facing “massive” misinformation efforts, said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, in an interview with Stateline at the National Association of Secretaries of State winter conference in Washington, D.C., last month.

Griswold is all too familiar with the harm that comes from misinformation. Two county election clerks in her state have intentionally allowed unauthorized access to election equipment by conspiracy theorists in the past two years, while Griswold faced threats against her life.

“Disinformation is lies and conspiracies that, often, elected officials use for their own political benefit that are inciting violence,” she said.

The continued effort to protect election officials and tell the truth about election administration was made easier by the defeat of many candidates espousing lies about widespread fraud in the election system, said former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican and member of the bipartisan National Task Force on Election Crises, which has been studying disinformation campaigns.

“I’m really glad that some of the folks in my party who were election deniers lost the election last year, which means they’re not going to be in the position to mess with elections,” he said. “I think it sends a powerful signal that that’s not a winning position. That’s a real positive.”

But some of those candidates did win key state and local election offices and state legislative seats in parts of the country, and are still pursuing an agenda based on disinformation, said Wendy Weiser, vice president and director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is housed at the New York University School of Law.

During last year’s midterms, there were instances of unauthorized access to election equipment, she pointed out. And some local officials spread disinformation to sow distrust in democracy and refused to certify vote counts.

“I think it is right to celebrate the successful conduct of the 2022 election, and some of our worst fears did not materialize in that election, but there still are significant threats heading into 2024,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we need to let our guard down.”

Local election officials nationwide are well aware of this.

Maricopa County, Arizona, became the “epicenter” of election denialism during the recent midterms, said Megan Gilbertson, communications director of the county’s election department. Speaking on a panel at the National Association of State Election Directors in Washington, D.C., she explained how officials tried to get ahead of the attacks.

With pre-bunking disinformation a priority, county officials launched an election command center, modeled on a unified command center structure used in emergency management situations. It allowed for the quick triaging of media requests, created a platform for debunking election falsehoods and gave a behind-the-scenes look at how officials run elections.

But on Election Day, ballot recording machines experienced technical problems in a fifth of the county’s polling places, leaving them unable to process ballots for hours. While election officials reassured voters that it would not affect their vote, many Republican candidates, already down in the polls, capitalized on the problems and “scared” voters, Gilbertson recalled. Voters wouldn’t even trust their friends and neighbors who served as poll workers, she said.

“Even with all of these facts, misinformation was spreading at the speed at which we reported results,” she said. “While I’m confident we’re having success in getting our message out to a broad audience, the challenge we still face is how we communicate the election process to those who don’t trust us.”

The Need to Combat Misinformation

American confidence in elections has taken a major hit in recent years.

According to a Gallup poll taken around the midterms, just 40% of Republicans were confident that votes are accurately counted in elections, compared with 85% of Democrats — the largest partisan gap Gallup has recorded since 2004. Overall, 63% of Americans are confident in the accuracy of U.S. elections.

One of the focuses in the coming year for election officials, and the national network of voting rights advocates and election law experts who support them, will be protecting and promoting the voices of independent local election administrators. But that will be challenging, experts warn.

Election officials — beaten down over two years by harassment following the 2020 presidential election, frivolous public records requests and a lack of support from local law enforcement — have left the field in droves, said Tammy Patrick, chief executive officer for programs at the Election Center, a nonprofit also known as the National Association of Election Officials.

That void has led to a loss of institutional knowledge in election offices, creating both opportunities for errors in administering elections and a lack of qualified voices to counter conspiracy theories, she said.

“We know that when mistakes are being made, unfortunately those mistakes are being weaponized and used against election officials,” Patrick said, “being used quite frankly against the system as a whole, that they are yet another reason why we shouldn’t trust the integrity of the system.”

Wide swaths of voters believe the falsehoods that the system is rigged because they think they’re being told the truth, she added. Voters need public education campaigns and greater transparency around election administration processes that aren’t widely understood, she said.

Patrick is part of a bipartisan coalition of former election officials, voting rights advocates and election security experts who compiled a report in the aftermath of last year’s midterms for the National Task Force on Election Crises. The report, released last month, outlines risks to the election system and how state and local officials can boost faith in the democratic process.

The Right Messaging

Combating election falsehoods does not start after Election Day, said Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s chief election official. It’s a constant effort before, on and after voters cast their ballots, she said.

Wolfe, a nonpartisan administrator who has been the target of partisan attacks by Republican members of her state’s legislature, worked to create “a baseline of knowledge” among the public, municipal election officials and members of the media before last year’s midterms.

“We need them to know what’s normal, what they should expect on election night,” she said.

In Oregon, it was important to “inoculate” voters from false narratives by proactively reaching voters ahead of the midterms, said Ben Morris, communications director for Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.

“If you want to fight misinformation, it is extremely effective to reach people before they are exposed to misinformation,” he said.

The office hired an advertising company to create a “Journey of a Ballot” video on YouTube, targeting “low-information” voters. The office also spent $200,000 on social media and YouTube ads that directed voters to its election website, which saw a 250% increase in traffic compared with the 2018 midterms.

The campaign engaged millions of voters, he said.

These efforts can make a difference, said Heider Garcia, elections administrator in Tarrant County, Texas, in the Fort Worth area.

Garcia spent two years combating disinformation about the voting process and about himself — a native Venezuelan who used to work for the election technology company Smartmatic, which has been the target of baseless attacks by conspiracy theorists.

His first response to the disinformation was to think, “Why do I have to put up with this?” But now, his relationship with voters who believe he was cheating has transformed from combative to respectful, he said.

“The strategy has been very simple: It starts with acknowledging them as people and as voters in my county,” he said. “I’m tied to them, and they’re tied to me. We’re like a marriage that has to work.”

He invites residents to come to his office to see how the election process works. He visits local clubs to address concerns, answering as many questions as listeners would like to ask. It’s “tactical patience,” he said.

“If you do take the time,” Garcia said, “then you will change a lot of minds.”

Matt Vasilogambros is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where this story first appeared

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