TIME: How Donald Trump’s Misinformation Campaign Against Mail-in Voting Is Undermining Faith in Democracy
TIME: How Donald Trump's Misinformation Campaign Against Mail-in Voting Is Undermining Faith in Democracy
After months of watching commenters flood his office’s social-media posts with voting myths and fielding calls about election conspiracies from constituents, Brian Corley finally got fed up. In July, the supervisor of elections in Florida’s Pasco County decided to shut down his office’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to stop false claims from spreading. “I just got tired of the misinformation and the partisan bickering back and forth,” says Corley, a Republican with 13 years on the job. “I saw no value in it as an election administrator.”
If 2016 showed how foreign operatives were exploiting social media to influence the U.S. election, the lesson of 2020 is already clear and even more worrisome: the greatest threat to a credible vote is homegrown. From the White House on down, Americans have taken a page from the Kremlin’s playbook by weaponizing misinformation online to advance their political goals. Election officials like Corley are struggling to break through an avalanche of falsehoods about mail-in ballots, doubts about the integrity of voting systems and skepticism about the validity of the results.
No one has done more to sow suspicion or spread lies than President Donald Trump, whose aggressive attacks on mail-in voting and false allegations of widespread voter fraud have capitalized on fear and uncertainty about holding a presidential election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. On television, at rallies and on Twitter, Trump has falsely claimed that mail-in ballots “lead to massive corruption and fraud,” that foreign powers will “forge ballots” and that the “only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” He has falsely implied that ballots are being sent to undocumented immigrants in California and even suggested delaying the election, which he has no authority to do, until Americans can safely vote in person. …
Election administrators from both parties, as well as nonpartisan officials in Trump’s own government, insist voting by mail is safe. The FBI says it has found no evidence of coordinated fraud with mail-in ballots and emphasized such a scenario would be very unlikely. “It would be extraordinarily difficult to change a federal election outcome through this type of fraud alone,” a senior FBI official told reporters in an Aug. 26 briefing.
But a claim doesn’t have to be true to affect an election. U.S. national-security agencies and social-media companies, which spent the past four years working to weed out false claims perpetuated by foreign adversaries, say the domestic disinformation this year presents a new challenge. Because of the constitutional right to free speech, it can be nearly impossible to police bad-faith claims, whether the speaker is an Internet troll or the Commander in Chief.
The result threatens not only the perceived legitimacy of this election but also Americans’ broader faith in U.S. democracy. “We have seen already that the President’s rhetoric is affecting the confidence that voters have in vote-by-mail, particularly, and also in elections in general,” Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, testified to Congress on Aug. 4. Gallup found last year that 59% of Americans are not confident in the honesty of the nation’s elections, third worst among the world’s wealthy democracies. While Trump and his allies have propagated misinformation about voting, the Gallup poll found that Trump’s critics are most distrustful: 74% of those opposed to the U.S. leadership reported a lack of confidence in the honesty of American elections. The Trump Administration’s attacks on the Postal Service exacerbated the problem, raising the question of whether the agency is capable of delivering ballots before state deadlines.