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

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!"
Jose Juarez
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AP
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!"

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.

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.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
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.

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.

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.
Jon Cherry / Getty Images
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Getty Images
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.

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

Ballots are processed by an election worker at the Clark County Election Department on in North Las Vegas on Thursday.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Ballots are processed by an election worker at the Clark County Election Department on in North Las Vegas on Thursday.

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.

Corrected: November 13, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Amy Cohen is the director of the National Association of State Election Directors. She is the executive director.
Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.