By Lauren Patetta
With the chaos of the 2020 election season mounting, the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections met Tuesday to consider ways Congress can combat the spread of misinformation among voters. Led by subcommittee Chairperson Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) and featuring various voting rights advocates, the hearing discussed ways false information spreads and what Congress can do to prevent it from discouraging voters.
“When voters doubt the [election] process, they are less likely to participate, which weakens the very nature of our democracy,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said. “The biggest threat facing our democracy right now is Americans losing faith that it works.”
This election season, the public is being encouraged to vote by mail to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, many have grown wary of the process, something Fudge attributed to President Trumps’ actions.
“The president and others are waging an insidious campaign to sow distrust in our electoral process by spreading false claims that vote-by-mail is rife with fraud, making unsubstantiated claims the election will be rigged, (and) encouraging people to vote twice,” Fudge said.
Despite Trump’s claims, experts agree that mail-in voting fraud occurs so infrequently that it is not a matter of concern.
Witnesses who spoke at the hearing testified that Congress needs to do more to prevent misinformation from spreading further. Inajo Davis Chappell, a member of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Ohio, believes that strong informational campaigns like her district’s “Vote From Home” program could show the public that casting a vote by mail is completely secure.
“Election disinformation is all propaganda, no matter its origin,” Chappell said. “As elections officials, we are committed to correcting misinformation and disinformation as best we can and in a number of ways.”
Spencer Overton, the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, spoke in the hearing to bring attention to the suppression of Black voters. According to Overton, Black Americans were targeted online by both Russian intelligence agencies and the Trump campaign in 2016 in an attempt to discourage them from voting.
“The 2016 presidential election marked the most significant decline in Black voter turnout in modern history,” he said. “With that record, it’s no surprise that these efforts are continuing in 2020.”
Chappell also emphasized the prevalence of voter suppression in her district, where there is one ballot dropbox for 850,000 voters. Additionally, with only one location to vote in-person, it has become difficult for voters to participate.
Much of the blame was placed on social media platforms, where it’s incredibly easy for misinformation to multiply and spread. This misinformation encourages people not to vote, and often scares the public into distrusting the electoral process. Facebook recently announced it would ban political advertisements starting November 3, but Overton wants the company to go farther, saying that it must institute stronger regulations to stop politicians from promoting false information.
“Many of the world’s most profitable companies should not profit from the discrimination of our most marginalized communities,” Overton said, noting that technology companies like Facebook and Twitter have a responsibility to protect Black voters from the false information campaigns waged against them.
Social media has also become a hotspot for foreign interference. The FBI found that foreign actors, namely Russia, have used social media to publish false voter registration dates and fake election results. Overton and Griswold agreed: social media platforms must do more to prevent this from happening in the 2020 election season.
“Social media companies are not neutral platforms and third-party content posted on their sites can promote ill-intentioned foreign activity,” Griswold said. “They should no longer be shielded from accountability.”
“Just like wood and wind spread a wildfire,” Overton said, “social media platforms are fueling the spread of lies that are undermining our democracy.”
Fudge concluded the hearing by asking what Congress can do to solve issues with voter suppression and misinformation. Griswold and Overton both said that Congress must use its platform to assure constituents about the safety of mail-in voting, and Chappell urged Congress to provide more funding for election officials, so they may improve community outreach.
Despite the concerns, witnesses and committee members both expressed hope that the voting process will ultimately go well. Chappell said she was already seeing encouraging signs.
“By the end of September 2020, our Board of Elections has seen almost three times the number of vote-by-mail ballots requested, as compared to the numbers in September 2016,” she said.
“I’m going to predict today that the American people are so discouraged by the attacks on our democracy that they’re going to vote in bigger numbers than anyone can imagine,” Fudge said in her closing remarks. “I believe that Americans have a real sense of fundamental fairness… and they believe that elections do matter.”