It has become popular in some far-right political circles to cast aspersions on the United States Post Office (USPS) and mail-in ballots. The amount of misinformation is becoming an avalanche of disinformation, aimed at making the U.S. population believe that somehow our tried and true post office contains perceived threats from mail-in voting.
Experts are warning that attacks on the USPS will undermine elections, and that appears to be the point: to discredit an institution that the American public wants to play a critical role in the upcoming election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a study by Pew Research, some two-thirds of Americans expect some disruption of the election process by COVID-19: “A substantial number (more than 80 percent) favor voting by mail, allowing any voter to vote by mail if they want to, including 44 percent who strongly support this policy. About half of the public (52 percent) favors conducting all elections by mail. The share of people supporting this proposal has increased 18 percentage points since 2018.”
No less than President Donald Trump has perpetrated unsubstantiated disinformation alleging that rampant voter fraud might occur. His messaging has grown extreme; last week he suggested that the November general election should be postponed due to what he called “concerns over an influx of mail-in voting.”
It was a suggestion with no authority. The executive branch has no power to postpone elections. That requires action by Congress, and both political parties have signaled they have no intention of postponing the election. Such a thing has not happened before in U.S. history; elections were held even in the depths of the Civil War and during World War II.
The voter fraud alleged by Trump is also not true. Studies of vote-by-mail data show that voter fraud is a mere .00006 percent, hardly an epidemic of cheating. Five states, including the state of Colorado, hold all their highly efficient elections via mail-in ballots.
“Colorado has used mail ballots for a long time … leading up to our big change in 2013 — that year we passed the law that we do automatic mail ballots. Prior to that, 80 percent of our voters were already on the permanent mail-in voter lists,” said Chaffee County Clerk and Recorder Lori Mitchell. “These attacks are so unfounded. People should realize that an absentee ballot and a mail ballot are the exact same thing.”
“Regardless of how secure our elections are, many election experts and officials are concerned that some voters could dismiss November’s results as invalid or rigged because of mis- and/or disinformation,” said David Levine, an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy within the German Marshall Fund. His warning came during testimony at a House Homeland Security Committee cybersecurity subcommittee’s election security hearing this past Tuesday.
The attack on the credibility of the U.S. general election is far-reaching; encompassing domestic misinformation and active disinformation campaigns by foreign actors, including Russia and China. The elections aren’t the only target — anything that could sow division and discord is being peddled to American audiences.
“I feel these attacks help our adversaries like Russia – people who want to undermine our election system and undermine our democracy. When folks share these things on social media platforms you’re just aiding in that,” said Mitchell.
A recent story in Politico, documented videos filled with false claims about voter fraud and COVID-19 cures; it has drawn millions of views on YouTube. They aren’t true. “Partisan activist groups pretending to be online news sites have set up shop on Facebook. Foreign trolls masquerade as U.S. activists on Instagram to sow divisions around the Black Lives Matter protests”.
Mitchell went on to express frustration with the disinformation being spread about the ballot process.
“Here in Colorado, we have paper ballots so we have a record. The chain of command process shows where the ballot is at every step. We have bipartisan election judges. Even before the state switched to Ballot Trax, which is just recently, Chaffee County has been using Ballot Trax to track every ballot. It is so transparent; every voter knows exactly where their ballot is every step of the way — you track your ballot like you track a package.”
Facebook, and Twitter are (finally) beginning to understand their role ensuring the accuracy of content, but appear to be fighting a losing battle. If the mission is to sow chaos, confusion, and a growing sense of unease about the election, it appears to be working.
“When I look at the risk that we have to the voting process, today I think that the potential for mis[information] and disinformation having an impact on the voting is greater in many regards than the potential of cyber threats,” John Gilligan, the president and CEO of the Center for Internet Security, testified at the same hearing.
He pointed out that an assessment last week by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) found that while “all forms of voting” present some level of risk from interference, the risks stemming from mail-in voting can be “managed through various policies, procedures, and controls.”
Legislators in the hearing noted that the U.S. should prepare to take offensive action to thwart disinformation, and states should prioritize voter education outreach efforts. Funding to do that is still tied up in negotiations over the next coronavirus stimulus package.
Mitchell says contact with county clerks in other jurisdictions shows, “People are crying for mail ballots in other jurisdictions. We know its ‘go-no go’ time for them; they are running out of time to do it safely and securely.”
She added that the Colorado voting model is very voter-centric. “In Colorado, we have a special type of hybrid voting model. We mail the ballot, but you can mail it back, or drop it off, or vote in person – here you can always vote in person beginning two weeks before the election. We want people to know if they don’t prefer to vote their mail ballot, they don’t have to. It’s a choice.”