By: Tommy Furlong
Voters have been victim of voter suppression from both foreign and domestic actors in the 2020 election, said Chairperson Marcia Fudge (D-OH).
This past Tuesday, the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections brought together witnesses to testify on how misinformation campaigns have played a role in this election cycle’s voter suppression in order to inform congressional action.
Misinformation campaigns, such as false rumors being pushed on social-media about candidates or the voting process, give energy to voter suppression efforts.
“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, 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). The Department of Homeland Security revealed that Russia is also promoting online content calling mail-in ballots as fraudulent.
“In the 13 years I have served in the Cuyahoga County board of elections, including the last three presidential elections,” said Inajo Davis Chappell, board of elections member in Ohio, “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.” Republican state leadership in Ohio has directed counties there can only be one drobox site available with little explanation why.
Ohio is simply following President Trump’s actions when it comes to voter fraud claims aimed 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.”
Voter fraud has been thrown around by Republican leadership since 2016 as well. Following his election win, 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, however, claims of fraud are more frequent, more founded and coming from multiple directions. Ohio Secretary of State, the same politician pushing for only one dropbox site per county, for instance, 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 …”
If not promoted, Overton argues Trump has given the freedom for misinformation campaigns to spread. “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 Trump administration proposal would preserve the power of platforms to remove obscene and excessively violent contact content but would eliminate their power to remove other objectionable content like election disinformation,” he said.
Despite misinformation campaigns continuing to swirl online there can be success behind a vote by mail for all approach, said Griswold, who’s state saw an overall increase of participation by 9%, including 16% among young voters and 13% among black voters, after doing so.
“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 there’s a major need for more federal assistance has been limited, said Benjamin Hovland, commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission,
“We’ve consistently heard about the need for additional funding,” he said. “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 argued there’s a need for national election standards. Legislation, she said, could be centered around combating deep fake edits, election misinformation, and foreign coordination.
When asked by Chairperson Fudge (D-OH) what Congress could do to help, outside of resources, other witnesses said to use their platform as congressmembers 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 who simply chose not to attend. 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.
In her closing remarks, Fudge said, “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.”