Misinformation ‘harms nearly every element of election administration,’ committee finds

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State election officials said that they “need help at the federal level” to counter the threat.

Threats against election officials and the spread of false claims about the accuracy of voting systems are making it harder for election administrators across the United States to effectively carry out their duties, the House Oversight and Reform Committee found in a staff report issued on Thursday.

The Democratic staff report centered on responses to an April 21 letter the committee sent to organizations of election officials in four states—Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Texas—“where election misinformation appeared to be having a significant impact.” Among the concerns that election administrators in those states conveyed to the committee was that “responding to the influx of threats and disinformation required hours of work and increased security that made it more difficult for them to do their jobs." 

The committee, which first began investigating the impact of election misinformation in early 2021, found in its report that the spread of election falsehoods “harms nearly every element of election administration” and has created “a feedback loop that produces more false information, heightens threats and pressures on election administrators, and increases the possibility of election subversion.” 

Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said in a statement that the committee’s investigation found “that bad actors are undermining faith in our democracy by spreading lies about elections for their own partisan and financial gain.” 

“The committee’s report leaves no doubt that a whole-of-government approach is needed to support state and local officials as they work to provide accurate information to the public,” Maloney added. 

The report detailed some of the graphic threats that have been made against election officials since the 2020 election, including messages received by one Texas official that threatened his children and said “I think we should end your bloodline.” Election administrators have responded to this type of targeted harassment, which the report said is “often inspired by comments from right-wing politicians and activists,” by seeking enhanced protection or even leaving the profession. 

The report recommended that the federal government take more proactive steps to assist and properly fund election officials and infrastructure. Some of these proposals included designating “a lead federal agency or office to support state and local efforts to counter election misinformation,” and more aggressively prosecuting those who threaten election administrators. And the committee also noted that appropriating election funding on an annual basis “will allow election officials to invest in physical and cybersecurity and modernize election equipment,” while also decreasing “the likelihood of a mistake or security breach that would imperil election legitimacy.” 

The report’s release was followed by a virtual roundtable with state and local election officials and voting experts to discuss the impact that misinformation is having on the nation’s election infrastructure. 

Lisa Marra, the director of elections for Cochise County in Arizona, told the committee that threats against election officials are already starting to impact the integrity of the electoral process by forcing out seasoned officials who are more equipped to handle any issues with voting systems and infrastructure.

“If experienced election officials across this country continue to quit, or are run out of their jobs because of this ridiculous harassment, who’s going to take their place?” Marra asked the committee. “The answer: it’s inexperienced people, and that’s not going to help us move the needle to increase voter confidence in America.” 

And even though officials are working to counter falsehoods about the legitimacy of U.S. elections—the report, in part, cited a website set up by election administrators in Ohio to provide reliable election information—they told the committee that they are finding it difficult to break through the narratives being pushed by election deniers. With threats against election officials and workers becoming more persistent, the inability to contradict these claims is forcing states to prioritize the physical security of their election systems and infrastructure. 

Jim Condos, Vermont’s secretary of state, told the committee that his office set up a webpage called “Facts Matter” several months ago to debunk election-related misinformation and disinformation, but added that “we need help at the federal level” to more effectively counter falsehoods about the voting process. 

“If you post something on Facebook or Twitter, it could be spread in a matter of minutes to millions of people, and to try to defend against that after it goes out is very, very difficult and almost impossible,” Condos said.

He noted that Vermont first began working to enhance the cybersecurity of its voting systems around 2012, and that working to mitigate digital threats “is a race without a finish line.” But Condos said that the state’s focus has shifted in part from cybersecurity to the physical security of election officials as a result of misinformation leading to threats of violence against election officials. 

Condos said that the state has already spent “in excess of $25,000” to secure the administration building that houses Vermont’s election division, including adding video cameras and placing additional plexiglass on the windows. 

“This is all because of these threats that have come down,” Condos added.

This article was published also on NextGov and GovExec, FederalSoup partner sites ("Misinformation ‘Harms Nearly Every Element of Election Administration,’ Committee Report Finds.") 

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