Two years of sustained disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election are causing disruptions and instability as early voting for the midterm election continues in most states.
In Arizona, people who believe the lies of former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen are filming and harassing voters, looking for supposed “mules” stuffing ballot boxes. Some of the self-appointed election watchers there have been armed.
In North Carolina and other states, far-right activists have gone door to door, asking residents to sign legal documents attesting they are registered to vote at their address. Other conspiracy theorists have signed up to be poll workers and election observers, hoping to find cracks in a system they’re convinced is corrupt.
Meanwhile, election-denying candidates are vying for secretary of state, county clerk and other positions of election administrative leadership in multiple states. If they win, they could use false fraud allegations to overturn future election results.
Election officials and experts are increasingly concerned that lies and falsehoods have left the U.S. election system vulnerable to disruptions and a crisis of confidence. But they also emphasize that voters have the power to see through the curtain of misinformation and ensure American democracy survives.
Elections are highly decentralized in the U.S., with 10,000 election offices facilitating voting nationwide, but there are clear procedures in place to ensure elections are accurate, said Daniel Griffith, senior policy director of the Secure Democracy Foundation, which this month published a 14-state look at how elections are tabulated and verified.
“There are checks and rechecks,” he said. “It’s a system to repel chaos. But some of these folks we’re dealing with — a small, but vocal minority — are there to manufacture chaos.”
Trump and other election deniers have taken advantage of many voters’ lack of knowledge about the election process to spin their false narrative that the election was stolen. Public education is critical in countering those lies, said Amber McReynolds, a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises, a bipartisan network of election experts.
McReynolds noted that the 2020 election was the most secure, observed, audited and litigated election in American history. The grift and lies that have followed Trump’s defeat are dangerous and heartbreaking, she said.
“Many of us expected drama after the 2020 election,” said McReynolds, who served as an election official in Denver for 13 years and now serves on the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors. “I don’t think any of us expected what it turned into: this sustained attack on the election process.”
Earlier this month, the task force released a report detailing ways election officials can build trust. It recommends, for example, that election officials make the election process more transparent by opening it up to authorized poll watchers; provide live video of tabulation centers; and prepare the public for the rolling update of vote totals by publicizing the expected timeline and format ahead of time.
It is likely that some close races won’t be called on the night of Election Day, said Michael McDonald, professor of political science at the University of Florida. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong, but it can leave an information vacuum if local election officials are not clear with voters about procedures and expectations, he said.
“The people who want to put out misinformation have weaponized transparency,” he said.
McDonald, a national elections expert who recently published a book, From Pandemic to Insurrection: Voting in the 2020 US Presidential Election, said transparency is good for the voting system, but election officials should be careful about exposing voting systems to unnecessary disruptions. That may mean delaying releasing election results until counts are complete, he said.
Compounding this concern are calls by election deniers to their supporters to wait to vote until Election Day, which could lead to long lines and delays. Election experts also expect another wave of legal challenges and calls for audits. There were already dozens of lawsuits challenging absentee ballot rules before voting even began.
On top of that, election deniers have filed tens of thousands of challenges to voter registrations, while far-right conspiracy theorists have flooded local election offices with public records. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has urged his podcast listeners to serve as poll workers and observers so they can challenge residency and signature verification of innumerable ballots.
These efforts have distracted underfunded and understaffed local election officials who are attempting to ensure the voting process runs smoothly, said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser for elections at Democracy Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that works with local election officials to improve the voting process.
She said she fears that people who have bought into election conspiracy theories will capitalize on inevitable errors. Already, county election officials have left races off ballots, mailed ballots to voters who never requested them and included voters in the wrong districts, Patrick said.
“People believe the election system is fraudulent and rife with malfeasance and criminal activity,” she said. “Any human error is going to be twisted and pointed to as some manifestation of a rigged system, when in reality, it was because a person made a mistake when they weren’t left alone to do their job.”
Natalie Adona, the nonpartisan assistant clerk-recorder and registrar of voters of Nevada County, California, hasn’t taken a day off in six weeks. She is worried about making mistakes. Ballots were triple checked before they were printed. And while she and her staff have been preparing for the midterms, they’ve also been bogged down by countless public records requests and a steady disinformation campaign.
“It concerns me,” she said. “Election offices have been unfairly targeted because of circumstances beyond their control. They don’t control election outcomes. They don’t control disinformation out there, but they’re responsible for responding to it anyway.”
The threats and harassment election workers have faced since 2020 have taken a toll, said Lawrence Norden, senior director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Local election officials are quitting in droves, he said, unwilling to face the brunt of a well-organized effort to spread false information that a federal judge said Trump knew were lies. Norden said disinformation is a “sickness” that requires political leadership to talk about elections honestly.
“The field has really been rocked by what’s happened,” he said. “It’s becoming too much for a lot of people. They are some of the lowest-paid people in government. They’re doing it because they want to serve their communities, because they believe in the democratic process.”
The U.S. Justice Department said it is monitoring threats against election workers.
Election experts are concerned that the local election officials driven out by harassment will be replaced by people who buy into lies about the voting system.
Thirteen of 27 secretary of state races around the country have an election denier on the ticket, according to States United Action, a nonpartisan election protection group. This includes states such as Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada. In Pennsylvania, where the governor chooses the secretary of state, the Republican candidate has also espoused election conspiracies.
“It’s really dangerous,” said Joanna Lydgate, the group’s CEO. “This is an attempt to hand-pick votes by a group of politicians who want to control the system so they can change the result of any election. Lies and conspiracies are being used to hijack the system.”
Nearly six in 10 Americans will have an election denier on the ballot this year to oversee elections, according to the group.
Americans have already seen the impact of having conspiracy theorists at the helm of local elections. In Colorado, one county clerk was barred from overseeing elections after she was indicted for misconduct and tampering with election equipment. Law enforcement also launched investigations into improper access to voting equipment in Georgia and Michigan counties during the 2020 election.
Voters can help the midterms run smoothly by checking their registration status and other election details with their state or local election offices, Patrick of Democracy Fund said. Knowing where and when to vote is crucial, she said, especially after the redistricting process. If they vote by mail, voters should turn in their ballot early and track their return online. Patrick also encouraged voters to serve as poll workers.
“Voters are still in the driver’s seat,” she said. “Many of the things that got us through 2020 will get us through this.”
This story was originally published Oct. 27, 2022, by Pew Stateline.