Election officials feared the worst. Here’s why baseless claims haven’t fueled chaos

Election workers around tables in a large vote-counting facility
Ballot counters process absentee ballots on Nov. 8 at Huntington Place in Detroit. The scene this year was much calmer than 2020, when protesters descended on Detroit and yelled for election officials to “stop the count!” (Photo by Jose Juarez/AP)

In the days following the 2020 election, chaos erupted at the main absentee ballot counting center in Detroit.

“Stop the count! Stop the count!” people yelled as they banged on the windows that stood between them and the people trying to tally votes. Social media teemed with false claims of ballots being wheeled in under the cover of night.

This year’s midterms couldn’t have looked more different.

“What we had in 2022 [at that counting center] was smooth, organized, serene even,” said Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state.

On the Wednesday after voting finished, Republican candidates for governor and state attorney general, who had denied the 2020 election results, conceded their races.

And it was at that moment, Benson says, she realized the nation’s election workers were on their way to passing their first real test since former President Donald Trump’s sustained attack on democracy.

“I got choked up a little bit because to me that was like the affirmation that we did it,” Benson said. “We ran a smooth election. There were folks who were ready to pounce on anything. … But it didn’t work.”

To be sure, the counting is not done in many races, and it will be weeks before the entire country’s election results are officially certified. Some candidates and online commentators — and Trump — have seized on Election Day glitches and the slow pace of vote counting in certain states to sow suspicion and claims of malfeasance.

But so far, that chatter has not yet incited the chaos that many had feared would ensue, stoked by a mythos of election fraud that has become a core belief for many Americans on the right.

Many candidates who lost have conceded — even some who questioned the results of the 2020 election. And in the cases where Republican candidates have chosen not to concede — like Benson’s own opponent, who rose to prominence by claiming fraud in 2020 — their cries of malfeasance seem to have fallen flat this cycle.

“We need all candidates who come up short to acknowledge it and to come back and fight within our system another day, if that’s their choice,” said Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Wednesday, after winning reelection.

Even as election officials, civil society groups and researchers who study online narratives brace for a prolonged post-election period of risk and uncertainty, they are cautiously hopeful the country is not headed for a repeat of 2020, when just hours after polls closed hundreds of thousands of Americans rallied online under the banner of “Stop the Steal,” a movement that culminated in violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“It feels like the air has been taken out of the sails somehow,” New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said last week. “That’s how it looks right now but I’m still in this ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ mode.”

Two years to learn and prepare

In the two years since Trump lost the 2020 election but refused to concede, the “big lie” of election fraud has metastasized in American politics, embraced not only by his most hardcore supporters but a significant swath of the Republican Party.

In the weeks ahead of the midterms, election deniers were already declaring the vote rigged — no matter what the outcome. And less than 40% of GOP voters said before the midterms that they were very confident in their community’s poll workers.

“The scene was set that there would absolutely be fraud, and it was just a matter of needing to observe, collect and report the evidence,” said Cindy Otis, a disinformation expert and former CIA analyst.

A man picks up a tray full of ballots from shelves filled with trays full of ballots
An election worker carries trays filled with mail ballots to open and verify at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix on Friday. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But the civil servants and volunteers who run elections across the country have also had two years to learn from 2020 and prepare.

“We had a lot more parameters and protections in place than we did in 2020,” said Benson. “That translated into a much smoother process that was ready to withstand challenges and I think deterred many from coming forward with attempts to intervene in the process, because we had successfully shown and convinced them that would have been a futile effort.”

Election offices also leveraged social media strategies similar to those used by bad actors spreading false narratives. The National Association of State Election Directors created social media templates that local governments shared on their own feeds.

“They use very similar language over and over and over again to emphasize that election officials are the trusted source or the most reliable place to get information about elections,” NASED Executive Director Amy Cohen said. “The goal is not to address a specific narrative or a specific piece of false information; it’s to drive … anybody who’s interested back to the party that can actually answer the question, which is election officials.”

Scrutiny on Maricopa County, again

The payoff from that preparation was perhaps most evident in Maricopa County, Ariz., which was the focus of some of 2020’s most viral fraud conspiracy theories.

On Tuesday, Maricopa was in the spotlight once again, when reports emerged early in the day that some ballot scanning machines in Phoenix were malfunctioning due to an issue with how the ballots were printed.

Online posts from voters describing their experiences with the problem soon became fodder for right-wing figures.

Less than an hour and a half after conservative activist and media personality Charlie Kirk started to claim on Twitter that the problems were actually an intentional effort to disenfranchise Republicans, Maricopa officials released a video explaining the problems and reassuring voters their ballots would be counted.

Researchers at the Election Integrity Partnership, a research coalition that focuses on misinformation around elections, pulled tweets related to technical issues in Maricopa up until Monday and found that while the most retweeted accounts promoted false narratives, the county election websites were the most frequently included links in the online discussion. The websites were used for both spreading facts and speculation.

After a surge of posts immediately after problems were reported Tuesday and early Wednesday, the researchers found discussions surrounding tabulation machines and printers in Maricopa had tapered off. That’s different from 2020, when false claims that ballots marked with Sharpie pens would be invalidated in Maricopa County gathered steam in the days after voting ended, and took about a day longer to taper off.

Fences, police on horseback and small protests

Another difference from 2020 was closer coordination between election agencies and law enforcement in places like Maricopa County, where on election night, police on horseback patrolled the streets outside the Phoenix tabulation center — itself surrounded by a newly erected permanent black security fence.

“It’s an unfortunate sign of the times, but it was comforting to see the protection of election officials taken so seriously,” Jennifer Morrell, a former elections official in Utah and Colorado, said during a briefing by the National Task Force on Election Crises on Wednesday.

In late October, U.S. security agencies issued a heightened threat advisory, warning of potential attacks on political candidates, election officials and others. And days before voting ended, a federal judge ordered one group that had been conducting surveillance of Arizona ballot drop boxes, sometimes with armed individuals, to stay at least 250 feet away and prohibited them from filming or following people.

Activists, groups monitoring for election fraud and even Trump called for protests and watch parties at ballot boxes, voting locations and counting centers. But large-scale gatherings failed to materialize, said Lindsay Schubiner of the Western States Center, a progressive organization that monitors extremist groups.

“It turned out to be a lot of talk,” she said, crediting officials’ communication that voter intimidation is illegal. “There’s a huge amount that can be done on a political level by defining what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

Over the weekend, dozens of protesters showed up outside of Maricopa County’s counting site in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, in what appears to be the largest post-election protest of 2022.

A small group of protestors outside the Maricopa County vote counting center
Right-wing activists protest the election process in front of the Maricopa County election center in Phoenix on Saturday. Ballots continue to be counted there as officials push back against conspiracy theories claiming the process is being delayed. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Trump’s diminished online reach

None of this is to say the volume of online rumors, baseless fraud accusations and conspiracy theories is any lower.

“Based on what we see before us in the breadth and supply of disinformation right now, there is seemingly a disconnect between how much is available and how relatively resilient people have actually been and not falling for lies that would sway them towards certain candidates, particularly those that are election denial champions,” said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at the advocacy group Free Press.

Mainstream platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok have all expanded policies intended to curb the spread of election falsehoods in recent years, from elevating credible information to labeling misleading posts to outright removing others and banning repeat offenders.

But watchdog groups have criticized those efforts as insufficient and cast doubt on how effectively they are enforcing the rules they do have.

In addition, the landscape of social media has changed with the rise of alternative platforms popular with the right that advertise few limits on what users can post.

The clearest example is Trump, who has been banned from Twitter and Facebook, cutting off his ability to reach a combined audience of over 100 million followers.

Trump now posts exclusively on his own social network, Truth Social. His following there is smaller — 4.5 million — and while his posts are often screenshotted and shared across mainstream platforms, his reach is more limited than it was in 2020.

For example, a Truth Social post he made on Election Day calling for protests in Detroit was copied and pasted onto Twitter, but has so far failed to gain traction or get widely shared.

Results made it harder to manufacture a coherent narrative

Hands flipping through a container full of ballots
Ballots are processed by an election worker at the Clark County Election Department on in North Las Vegas on Thursday. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Another challenge for those eager to cast doubt upon the results of the election is that they appear to be struggling to cohere around a narrative to advance conspiracy theories.

A handful of candidates have filed lawsuits, but nothing on the scale of what Trump attempted in 2020.

And while Republicans fell short of the “red wave” some were anticipating, the party chalked up important victories, most notably in Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis swept to a second term with a nearly 20-point margin.

On pro-Trump forums and channels, commenters wrestled with what to make of the results.

“Any county that hasn’t finished counting is cheating, full stop,” a user on one website wrote on Thursday. “[Y]eah but what happens if Kari Lake wins? That means we cheated then?” another replied.

While the fringe platforms have siphoned off some of the more notorious sources of false information and conspiracy theories, they’ve created an ecosystem that’s powerful in its own right.

“You have this content being delivered now in so many different ways,” disinformation expert Otis said. “They’re getting it in audio and podcasts, in newsletters, in emails, in text messages, in apps, news apps and from political campaigns — they’re just getting hammered with it. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be something that’s going viral on a mainstream platform to have continued impact.”

Still, as Benson noted in Michigan, maybe the clearest sign that the atmosphere this cycle is less receptive to contesting results is that so few candidates — even those who falsely believe that Trump won in 2020 — have decided to do so.

New Mexico Secretary of State Oliver pointed to her state’s 2nd Congressional District. Going into Election Day, she was worried that the House race could be a hotspot. It’s switched hands between the two major political parties each of the past three elections, and barely a thousand votes separate the two candidates this year.

But on Wednesday, Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell conceded defeat.

“It’s been really nice to have a return to what I consider the norms of our democracy — you know, accepting election results, the peaceful transition of power,” Oliver said. “And it makes me feel hopeful for the first time in quite a while.”

NPR’s Danielle Kaye and Hansi Lo Wang, and Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Stephen Fowler contributed reporting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Going into last week, a lot of people who run elections were concerned. They feared candidates would falsely claim victory. They feared lies about the election process would go viral online. And they feared possible violence and intimidation as the vote count continued. But so far, none of those fears have been realized – no violence, no false claims of victory. And even conspiracy theories haven’t gotten much traction.

And to find out why, we’re joined now by NPR’s Miles Parks and Shannon Bond. Hey to both of you.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So how refreshing is it for there to be a good-news story about the election? Miles, I want to start with you because you spend a lot of time talking to election officials. How good are they feeling about the midterms so far?

PARKS: They’re feeling great. And specifically, when they look at the landscape of candidate concessions, I think it’s really clear. You know, even people like Doug Mastriano, one of the most high-profile election deniers – he was running for governor of Pennsylvania – he conceded his race after he lost. I talked about that with Jocelyn Benson, who’s the Democratic secretary of state of Michigan. In her state, there were election deniers running up and down the ballot, including for governor and attorney general. And both those candidates conceded the day after the election. And when that happened, she actually got emotional.

JOCELYN BENSON: I got choked up a little bit because to me, that was, like, the affirmation that we did it. We actually ran a smooth election. There were folks who were ready, as we’re seeing in other states, to pounce on anything. But it wasn’t – it didn’t work.

PARKS: Now, to be clear, not every candidate has conceded. Even Benson’s opponent in the secretary of state race, who lost by more than 600,000 votes, she has not conceded. But the conspiracies that she’s been pushing about the election, they haven’t stuck in the same way they did in 2020, for instance.

CHANG: So interesting. OK. Well, Shannon, you know, these conspiracy theories really haven’t taken hold in the days since the election. And I know that you and Miles and Huo Jingnan have been reporting on this. What have you learned about why that is?

BOND: Well, I think, you know, we know it’s been two years for these conspiracy theories and this general feeling about election fraud to build. But in those past two years, election officials, the media and social networks have also had time to prepare. And I think we’ve seen some of that payoff.

Take Maricopa County in Arizona. It was the focus of some of the most viral fraud claims in 2020. And this time around, there were some issues on Election Day with ballot scanning machines that weren’t working. But the county was quick to explain what was happening, to reassure voters their votes would be counted and to push back on right-wing influencers who were trying to claim this was some kind of evidence that Republicans were going to be disenfranchised. And social media researchers we spoke to found overall, these narratives around problems at the polls did not get the same kind of traction that we saw back in 2020.

CHANG: So why is that? Like, we heard platforms pledge to make changes after 2020. Did that make a difference?

BOND: I mean, make no mistake, Ailsa, there are still a lot of rumors and baseless fraud accusations and conspiracy theories online, and it hasn’t gone away. But it’s true. Mainstream platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok – they’ve all expanded policies intended to curb the spread of election lies through things like fact checks, labeling. There have been mixed results on how successfully they’re enforcing these.

But I think the other dynamic here is that the social media landscape has changed. There are these fringe platforms popular with the far right. They’ve siphoned off some of the more notorious spreaders of these claims.

And I think the best example here is former President Donald Trump, right? He was banned from Facebook and Twitter. He doesn’t have access to a big megaphone. He had more than 100 million followers on those platforms. These days, he’s posting on his own site, Truth Social. Those posts, you know, reach about 4 1/2 million people. They get screenshot and shared to mainstream platforms, but he does not seem to have the same reach as when he was posting directly on Twitter.

CHANG: Exactly. Well, Miles, in 2020, I mean, we saw aggressive protesters showing up at vote-counting centers demanding to be let in, sometimes making threats. Like, why are we not seeing that this year? What’s your sense?

PARKS: I think there are a couple reasons. I mean, one is Trump. Trump was not on the ballot, and he is a very singularly motivating presence for a lot of these people. The other thing that I’m not sure we focused on enough as reporters covering this story is that the election officials, yes, have spent the last two years fighting misinformation, but they’ve also spent the last two years making new partnerships with law enforcement. And I think that part of this as a deterrence mechanism is something that – I don’t know that became clear until this election.

You know, one of the videos that has been kind of highest-profile coming out of Maricopa County since voting happened last week was outside of the tabulation center. There were a couple of protesters, but then you saw basically 10 police officers on horseback, also patrolling the counting center. That kind of deterrence seems to have made a big difference here.

CHANG: Well, a question for both of you is, you know, given all that has happened or, maybe more importantly, what has not happened in the last week, what do you think? Will election lies continue to be a big problem over the next couple of years before the 2024 presidential election?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, I think we need to, first of all, just look at the fact there are races that have not been called yet. I mean, there is still – people are still wary right now about what might happen over the next couple of weeks as we wait for votes to be officially certified. And I also think it’s important to recognize that there is a portion of the population on the right that are now – where this has really hardened. You know, they’re going into any election expecting fraud. And that does not seem to be going away. And so I think the question for our reporting is, are institutions and the broader voting public resilient enough to keep those kind of factors from eroding democratic systems?

PARKS: Yeah, it’s definitely too early to claim victory for election officials. I talked recently with Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who is the Democratic secretary of state of New Mexico, and she says she’s basically waiting for the other shoe to drop. But she’s also acknowledging that, yes, this round seems to have gone really well.

MAGGIE TOULOUSE OLIVER: It’s been really nice to have a return to what I consider, you know, the norms of our democracy – you know, accepting election results, peaceful transition of power. And it makes me feel hopeful for the first time in quite a while.

PARKS: The last few years have been so hard on people who have been running American elections. Right now, they are letting themselves feel a little bit of hope.

CHANG: That is good news. That is NPR’s Miles Parks and Shannon Bond. Thanks to both of you.

PARKS: Thank you.

BOND: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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