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Disinformation may be the new normal, election officials fear

Disinformation may be the new normal, election officials fear

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Voters take to the polls on Election Day

“May the best person win,” said Asharay Johnson, left, who stands in line to vote on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, outside the Florissant Valley Branch Library. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

As voting wound down last week during the California recall election, Natalie Adona, the assistant registrar of voters in Nevada County, got an irate phone call.

A voter, driven by disinformation that Republican politicians had pushed for weeks, berated Adona over the state’s lack of a photo ID law, saying election officials exposed the voting system to fraud.

Adona explained that election officials follow state law and verify signatures on mail-in ballots. After a tense back-and-forth, the voter called her a Nazi. Election officials across the country say such attacks have become commonplace.

“It’s escalated to an unhealthy and dangerous level,” Adona said in an interview. “We are trying to talk over others who have a further reach, more money, more power and basically are more interested in winning elections than American democracy, even though they know what they’re saying is not true.”

The lies about election fraud, which range from false claims about the winner of the 2020 presidential race to accusations about this month’s California recall process, have state and local election officials worried about the future. As gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia approach this fall, and next year’s national midterms near, election officials are struggling to combat disinformation and assure voters their ballots are secure.

Many of these nonpartisan bureaucrats are asking themselves how they should counter false narratives.

The onus for quieting wrong accusations should be on the political campaigns and parties that have perpetuated them, said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser for the D.C.-based nonprofit Democracy Fund, which advocates for election officials. But the responsibility for debunking those claims instead has fallen on election officials.

“Most election officials are not PR or communications specialists,” said Patrick, a former election official in Maricopa County, Arizona. “For years, we have been saying election officials now need to be IT managers, and then they need to be cybersecurity managers. Last year, they were public health officials. Now, they need to be experts in misinformation in a hyper-polarized environment.”

In Virginia, where early voting started last week, state Elections Director Chris Piper said he and other election officials have a responsibility to fight the attacks on the voting system by being transparent. Election officials can no longer sink into the background, content with their job performance, without explaining to the public how they work, he said.

“We’ve started an all-out push,” he said. “We have to be really aggressive about getting that information out there. It’s just too critical to not be talking about the incredible amount of work that goes into putting on an election.”

To help, the Democratic-led Virginia legislature this year allocated nearly $2 million to voter education efforts. Piper and his team launched an advertising blitz and are touring schools, retirement communities and elsewhere.

But a growing chorus in the commonwealth alleges widespread voter fraud. One conservative group, Virginians for America First, has called for an Arizona-style audit of the 2020 election. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

While many officials fear lies about the election system make them susceptible to verbal and physical attacks and have talked about leaving the field, defending the voting process has motivated other officials to stay in the fight.

Scott O. Konopasek was supposed to retire Jan. 7 as an election official. But the day before he was to leave his position as the assistant registrar of voters for Contra Costa County, California, there was a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The forces behind the riot, he noted, are the ones still driving election conspiracy theories.

“I decided that I have more experience and thicker skin than most, maybe I should get back into the game,” he said. “We need more than passivity. We need people who know better to speak up.”

Konopasek, who is now the director of elections in Fairfax County, Virginia, monitored the fabrications in California and was mindful of how they could affect his work for the upcoming gubernatorial election in his new state. Most voters, he said, care about their voting rights but might not understand the role that election officials play in protecting them. Some Republican candidates and conservative activists have weaponized false information to energize their voters, he said.

Most misunderstandings about the election system can be solved by inviting voters into the office and showing them how vote tabulation works and what security measures the county has in place, Konopasek said. He works with leaders in the community, the press, candidates and political parties to combat disinformation.

That sort of openness and attention to concerns is crucial for election officials, said Amber McReynolds, founding CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit that educates states and counties on effective mail-in voting systems. McReynolds, a former election chief from Denver and a member of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, said it takes a lot of time, energy and resources to pull off.

“But when you do that and put that investment up front, you can train candidates to better understand the election process,” McReynolds said. “A lot of the disinformation comes from people who have no understanding of the election process.”

She acknowledged, though, that it can be an enormous challenge when people are deliberately lying. Such candidates should be held accountable, she said, by having their lies called out.

Facing threats and legal challenges, election officials are now getting more help. The Election Official Legal Defense Network, which launched earlier this month, now offers pro bono legal representation to poll workers, county clerks and anyone else who runs elections. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department this summer created a law enforcement task force to respond to rising threats against election officials and volunteers.

While efforts to inform voters through community events and active social media accounts are helpful, there is a sizable portion of the electorate that will not listen to election officials, said Kat Calvin, founder of voting rights group Spread the Vote. As a Los Angeles voter, she saw firsthand the corrosive power of election conspiracy theories, watching people in her community buy into the falsehoods.

“The problem is this isn’t really about voter fraud or what an official is saying, or a candidate is saying,” she said. “But we’re seeing the effects of years and years of people living in different silos, different worlds with different facts. It’s beyond what your board of elections can do.”

But election officials are not giving up on that challenge, even in trying circumstances.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, Republican Recorder Stephen Richer told Stateline that rebuilding confidence in this divisive environment continues to be demanding. Elections can run better, of course, but having productive conversations is difficult, he said, when his county has for months been under investigation by state Senate Republicans in a partisan review of the 2020 presidential election.

“We’re going to keep using a lot of the same clubs that we know and love, which is transparency, inviting people to be part of the process,” he said. “People who have interacted with the human beings who are running these systems are much less inclined to be the people who are spewing this type of nonsense online.”

In California, the state Republican party put up a website walking visitors through details on how to vote. But the party also posted an election integrity online push poll and sought political donations through a link to an “election integrity fund.”

In the past few years, Republicans who question election outcomes often have grouped disinformation campaigns and calls for audits under the umbrella of election integrity, claiming their concerns are based on the potential for fraud.

Republican front-runner Larry Elder and other conservative politicians spent weeks sowing doubt in the California recall process, saying the election might be stolen — riffing on the conspiracy theories fueling partisan audits and stricter voting laws since the 2020 presidential election.

While Elder accepted the recall effort’s defeat, his and other right-wing activists’ unfounded claims leading up to the vote reverberated throughout the Golden State. Tea party-affiliated groups trained thousands of poll watchers, some of whom tried to bait election workers by asking about dead people voting or corrupted voting machines, as disinformation about the security of mail-in ballots saturated social media.

GOP party officials did not return calls for comment.

Jim Irizarry, assistant registrar of voters in San Mateo County, California, said that fighting misconceptions takes an arsenal: culture, technology, laws and transparency.

The county established advisory committees so voters can provide input on accessibility, language assistance and voter education and outreach. State law mandates a manual audit of 1% of ballots to ensure accuracy. The county also spent $5 million on new paper-based voting equipment two years ago. The equipment isn’t connected to the internet, and officials test it for accuracy before and after elections.

Every ballot is digitally scanned, as well, so candidates in close races are able to review ballots to confirm results. When groups concerned about voter fraud and the integrity of the California recall election approached his office, Irizarry welcomed them to the county’s facilities as he would for any voter. Even further, his office replies to emails and letters that question ballots’ integrity.

“These verifiable means show your system is accurate and has no fraud,” Irizarry said. “You kind of pick the argument apart. For the most part, people do listen. But it’s a lot of work. It’s not wine and roses.”

©2021 The Pew Charitable Trusts. Visit at stateline.org

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