Subcommittee on Elections Hearing Examines Misinformation in the 2020 Election

Chairperson of the House Subcommittee on Elections, Marcia Fudge (D-OH) finishes her opening remarks during a hearing that looked to examine the role misinformation has played in this year’s election.

By Tommy Furlong

Voters have been victim of voter suppression from both foreign and domestic actors in the 2020 election.  

This past Tuesday, House Administration Subcommittee on Elections brought together witnesses to testify on how misinformation campaigns have played an essential role in this cycle’s voter suppression in order to inform congressional action.

“Just like wood and wind spread a wildfire, social media platforms are fueling the spread of lies that are undermining our democracy,” said Spencer Overton.

Overton is president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, where his own research is centered around voter suppression.

“Online disinformation is not simply dividing our nation,” he said, “foreign and domestic actors are using lies to specifically target and suppress black votes right now.”

One of those attacks came during the Democratic National Convention when Russia targeted black voters with online ads filled with disinformation about Senator Harris (D-CA). Similar ads taken down from Facebook and Twitter in March were also traced back to Russian networks.

“In the 13 years I have served in the Cuyahoga county board of elections, including the last three presidential elections,” said Inajo Davis Chappell, “I’ve never witnessed the kinds of falsehoods being disseminated about the integrity of our elections process that I have been seeing in this cycle.”

Her county also only has one mail-in ballot dropbox for the 850,000 voters that live there.

“It makes absolutely no sense at all,” she said. Adding, “we have one location under state law where voters must come to vote in person.”

The Ohio Secretary of State has acknowledged that there are foreign actors at play such as Russia, China, and North Korea, but Chappell says, “sadly, however, much of this misinformation is being promoted by President Trump, the White House and other domestic bad actors who have unfairly demonized the vote by mail process …”

Overton argued the administration must also take a stronger stance supporting social media attempts to remove misinformation. Instead, “when some social media companies started to remove these lies, the Trump administration retaliated,” he said. The retaliation came in the form of an executive order that sought to prevent online censorship and in the process, limit their ability to remove misinformation.

The executive order sought to amend section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, according to Overton, which gives social media platforms freedom to remove misinformation without fear of legal liability.

Despite these attacks, there are success stories to build future litigation off of. After adopting a vote by mail for all approach, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said there was an overall increase in participation by 9%, including 16% among young voters and 13% among black voters.

 “The idea that we have misinformation trying to undermine vote by mail, which is the most responsible way to vote during a pandemic, can harm Americans lives,” she said, “and Colorado is proof of how wonderful a good election model can work.”

But election security isn’t often a top priority and federal assistance has been limited.

Commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Benjamin Hovland said, “we’ve consistently heard about the need for additional funding, obviously elections are under resourced traditionally, but the federal funding that’s come through has made a big difference.” 

Seeing potential for success and a lack of federal assistance, Griswold argues there is a need for national election standards. Legislation, she said, could be centered around combating deep fake edits, election misinformation, and foreign coordination.

When asked directly by subcommittee Chairperson Fudge (D-OH) what Congress could do to help, outside of resources, other witnesses said to use their platform to reach out to and educate constituents and fight back against the tech companies to remove this type of information.

The congressmembers present were all Democratic and made sure to note the absence of their Republican counterparts multiple times. While their arguments weren’t heard, Republican party leaders Vice President Pence and President Trump have been making claims of fraud for quite some time. 

Following the 2016 Election Trump placed Pence in charge of investigating voter fraud after he claimed millions of Americans voted illegally that year. The investigation closed with little to no evidence in 2018.

In 2020, Trump’s voter fraud claims have been aimed primarily at mail-in voting. In June of this summer, Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee sued Pennsylvania over their expanded use of drop-off sites for mail ballots.

The lawsuit says, “Defendants have sacrificed the sanctity of in-person voting at the altar of unmonitored mail-in voting and have exponentially enhanced the threat that fraudulent or otherwise ineligible ballots will be cast and counted in the upcoming General Election.”

The full extent of voter suppression and participation in the 2020 election remains to be seen, but Fudge said in her closing remarks, “if this election goes the way I want this election to go, we will be coming to you with the resources to give to all of these states to do this the right way.”

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