Unverified claims and conspiracy theories about election fraud continue to spread both online and offline ahead of the 2022 midterms. As election day approaches, recognizing what these claims mean and why they are untrue can help the public combat the harmful narratives that motivate anti-democratic tactics and erode faith in the election process.
Conspiracy theorists who sow doubt in the democratic process will often reveal new “evidence of fraud” from past elections and apply that doubt to current or future elections in order to keep their narratives alive. Today, those who spread false and misleading information continue to expand on the lies that surfaced during the 2020 U.S. presidential election, alleging that President Joe Biden’s win was a result of insidious practices that they allege are still being implemented today.
The most salient and worrisome narratives fall under one central theory: Recent elections in the U.S. have been systematically rigged and will continue to be unless citizens act and reveal “the truth.”
Because labeling a narrative as disinformation requires evidence of malicious and coordinated activity by entities who know the content is false – evidence which we do not currently have – the narratives described below will be referred to instead as false narratives, misinformation or conspiracy theories.
FALSE NARRATIVE #1: BIG TECH IS INTERFERING WITH AND RIGGING ELECTIONS
Believers of this narrative allege that big tech companies are using their power to secretly rig elections, targeting multiple platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter with allegations of wrongdoing.
CTCL & Mark Zuckerberg:
A nonprofit called the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) has been targeted thanks to funding they received in 2020 from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. CTCL helped election offices ensure accessible, secure conditions for voters in 2020, but conspiracy theorists have taken this to mean that Facebook has secretly been trying to influence elections.
However, the funding to CTCL in 2020 had nothing to do with Facebook itself. Zuckerberg and Chan wanted to help election offices with resources like poll worker training, staffing support and personal protective equipment for workers to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Funds were then used to provide grants across the country to jurisdictions in need of financial assistance.
The Google Whistleblower
Election fraud promoters claim that former YouTube employee and “whistleblower” Zach Vorhies provided evidence of Google interfering in the 2020 election. In his 2021 book, Vorhies claims that censorship and machine learning technology allowed Google to rig the election in favor of the Democrats.
Vorhies, however, is hardly a reputable source for credible information. He has a known history of promoting other demonstrably false narratives such as COVID misinformation and QAnon, helping conspiratorial films like “Plandemic” gain traction on social media with the help of online crowdfunding campaigns.
Twitter’s 2022 Midterm Policies
On August 11, 2022, Twitter published a blog post called “Our approach to the 2022 US midterms,” announcing the reinstatement of their content moderation policies to combat election misinformation, such as labeling misleading content and “prebunking.” That same day, the Gateway Pundit, a conspiratorial website, published an article with the blatantly false headline: “Twitter Announces it Will Meddle in 2022 Midterm Elections.”
Other conspiracy theorists have called Twitter’s policy a strategy to influence the 2022 midterms because “Twitter’s interference in the 2020 election worked out so well.”
In reality, Twitter’s content moderation plan is merely a way to address false or misleading narratives and is not being implemented in the interest of a particular political party or candidate.
These claims have already had offline effects in 2022. When far-right and Islamophobic candidate Laura Loomer lost her Florida congressional primary to Daniel Webster, she gave a speech blaming what she called “big tech election interference” and refused to concede.
FALSE NARRATIVE #2: IF RESULTS ARE NOT ANNOUNCED ON ELECTION NIGHT, SECRET ENTITIES ARE TRYING TO STEAL IT
“Dumps” in 2020
This concept was popular during the 2020 election, when steep increases in voter counts were deemed questionable by then-President Donald Trump. Before the vote counting was even complete, Trump claimed that in several locations, an overnight rise in votes putting Biden ahead of him were due to fraudulent ballot “dumps,” or large quantities of fake votes being inserted into the system at one time. In 2020, voter counts did indeed spike in a number of states, but only because counts were released in batches. This impacted the numbers not just for Biden, but for Trump as well. In some cases, the spikes were a result of data errors, but these were resolved shortly after and did not impact the election results.
2021 Elections and 2022 Primaries
Similar accusations have been leveled throughout 2021 and 2022. The 2022 primaries in Arizona and Washington state, for example, were heavily criticized for how long it took officials to call the final results. Users on Twitter justified the delay by explaining that “cheating takes time.”
This theory also surfaced during the 2021 New Jersey gubernatorial election, when Bergen County switched from red to blue overnight. The shift was legitimate, but that didn’t stop conspiracy theorists from accusing Democrats of fraud.
Officials have clarified that a delay in reporting results is not unusual, especially with an influx of mail-in or absentee ballots. Varying state-by-state laws determine when and how workers can begin processing votes. Alabama, for example, does not allow the counting of absentee or mail-in ballots to begin until after the polls close. These rules can change between election cycles if amendments are made to existing laws.
FALSE NARRATIVE #3: ELECTION INTEGRITY IS BEING THREATENED BY ILLEGAL BALLOT HARVESTING AND BALLOT TRAFFICKING
Ballot Trafficking & “2,000 Mules”
This theory argues that surveillance footage from 2020 shows evidence of widespread “ballot harvesting” or “ballot trafficking," which is the alleged phenomenon of individuals being hired to collect and deposit large amounts of fraudulent ballots in local drop boxes. Promoters argue that this practice allows people to falsely inflate votes for a certain candidate. This narrative was also the premise of Dinesh D’Souza’s 2022 conspiratorial documentary “2,000 Mules” , which claims to reveal data about coordinated ballot trafficking by hired individuals, or what they refer to as “mules.”
The theories peddled in “2,000 Mules” have been widely debunked. The footage in question simply shows people inserting ballots into drop boxes; in many states, it is legal for family members or other authorized individuals to deposit ballots that are not their own in certain circumstances. Claims in the film were also based on “geotracking data,” which D’Souza and self-proclaimed “election integrity” group True the Vote argue allowed them to trace “mules” to specific drop boxes and to “stash houses,” where they believe the fraudulent ballots were stored and picked up by the mules. However, experts explain that cell phone geotracking data is not granular enough to prove that those individuals were legitimately at those locations.
Michigan Citizens for Election Integrity
In September 2022, Gateway Pundit, along with Michigan Citizens for Election Integrity (MC4EI), released a compilation video showing what they claim is ballot trafficking in Michigan during 2020. They argue that in some cases people are seen stuffing boxes with excess ballots, or even switching out existing ballots from sealed envelopes. Similar accusations have recently been made about Tarrant County in Texas, which law enforcement officials have refused to investigate due to insufficient evidence.
Official election representatives and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have since addressed MC4EI’s claims of ballot trafficking. Audits of vote counts conducted after the election in 2020 proved that there was no coordinated fraud. Benson clarified that security measures are taken to ensure that identifiers on ballots envelopes, such as personal signatures, are properly vetted.
FALSE NARRATIVE #4: IN-PERSON PAPER BALLOTS ARE SUPERIOR TO ELECTRONIC AND ABSENTEE BALLOTS
For several years – but especially since 2020, when Dominion was targeted as a primary source for election fraud claims – conspiracy theorists have posited that the vulnerabilities of electronic voting systems have rendered elections insecure. Not only are theories about Dominion already being incorporated into narratives about the 2022 midterms, but other claims also suggest that digital voting methods inevitably lead to fraudulent elections.
In August 2022, election fraud conspiracy theorist and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, along with former investigative journalist Lara Logan, released a conspiratorial documentary called “Selection Code.” The film paints a sympathetic picture of former Mesa County, Colorado clerk and recorder Tina Peters, depicting her as a victim being silenced by the government for speaking the truth about voter fraud. It also discusses the perils of electronic voting technology, describing computerized voting systems as vulnerable, secretive and “phenomenally complex.” The film ends with a narrator stating that these circumstances have put the country “on the edge of world war.”
The film, however, fails to discuss what truly occurred in Mesa County. In 2021, state officials and Dominion employees came to Mesa County to conduct a “trusted build,” or a software update for voting equipment. Using the I.D. of an actual employee, Peters allegedly hired an unauthorized individual to attend this update and make copies of hard drives with voter data, which was then released to conspiracy theorists who ran their own “analyses.” The district attorney eventually found that any anomalies were not malicious in nature but were instead due to human error, and Peters was later indicted for several offenses including election tampering and identity theft.
Pushing for Paper Ballots in 2022
As recently as October 2022, former President Trump has publicly stated that he believes “one day voting” and “paper ballots” should be the standard for elections in America going forward, and how only extreme circumstances should warrant absentee ballots. Combined with his repeated calls for the elimination of “fake drop boxes,” believers of election fraud have been inspired to double down on the push for exclusively paper ballots in the 2022 midterms. In late September 2022, Lin Wood – a disgraced attorney who has promoted QAnon, election fraud and a slew of other conspiracy theories – made his midterm predictions on Telegram, stating: “Is everyone fired up about voting on the computer cheat machines in person on November 8, 2022, to select between the lesser of two ‘selected’ evils???”
There are entire organizations dedicated to the elimination of voting machines based on these false claims. Act for America, for example, currently states on their “No Voting Machines 2022!” homepage: “We must prevent a repeat of the General 2020 Election and guarantee the results of the 2022 Midterm election reflects the true will of the people. We are calling on all states to ban the use of all electronic voting machines, including ballot tabulators, in this upcoming election.” The page offers an opportunity for supporters to donate on a one-time or monthly basis.
Concerns about electronic voting systems are not new, and companies specializing in electronic election technology are aware of the vulnerabilities inherent to all digital processes. For that reason, they routinely test and audit their own systems to ensure accuracy. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has also clarified that there are mitigation strategies already in place to address any potential breaches of election technology, explaining how “there is no indication that cyber vulnerabilities have contributed to any voting system deleting, losing, or changing votes.”
Misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories create a perceived threat where no such threat exists – in this case, the alleged threat of powerful, bad actors committing widespread election fraud. Extremist groups and conspiracy theorists prescribe actions to fight those threats, and while such actions can potentially occur on election day, the risks are still present in the weeks and months that follow. This was recently manifested in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was a direct response to the conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election from two months earlier.
False and misleading election narratives can lead to harassment both on and offline in the form of voter intimidation, organized monitoring of ballot drop boxes and witch hunts of innocent people who have been targeted due to these claims. These narratives can also dissuade people from participating in the electoral process, as they may avoid voting due to fear of surveillance, and a range of election workers have quit their jobs since 2020 in the face of persistent threats.
Most of all, these narratives prime voters to believe that if their candidate of choice loses, the election must have been rigged.