Preparing for the fight against 2024 election misinformation

A year out before the Presidential election used to be considered the calm time for election officials and watchers, but 2020 changed all that. Now election administrators and the people who assist them are trying to get ahead of what may come 509 days from now. 

“This is supposed to be the quietest time in an election season,” Executive Director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, David Becker, said to a room of journalists in Downtown Phoenix Thursday. 

Becker and Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates spoke to journalists about the shift in climate toward election officials, the effect it has had, how elections are run and the rampant spread of disinformation that has continued since 2020 about an election that occurred nearly 1000 days ago

Threats to election workers 

Earlier this month, Gates announced that he would not be seeking re-election and, although he did not cite the continued threats and harassment he and his family have faced since 2020 as a reason for not seeking re-election, those threats have taken a toll on him personally

Gates reiterated Thursday that he did not want people to feel sorry for him and that his story should be one of hope as he was able to identify what helped him deal with the stresses of the work he was doing and it allowed him to stand up for what was right. Gates continually referred to himself as an optimist. 

However, the threats election officials and administrators are continuing to face in Arizona and nationally are still growing. 

The FBI has identified Arizona as one of the top states for threats to election workers and polling has shown that those threats are causing high turnover of election workers. Multiple people from different states have been prosecuted for violent threats, including bomb threats, to Arizona election officials.  

The threats and high turnover, coupled with election deniers seeking positions within those offices, have Becker concerned. 

For example, in Warren County, Ohio, David Whipple — who believes in the QAnon conspiracy theory and election denialism — was appointed to the County Board of Supervisors. 

Becker sees two scenarios. 

The vacancies create “competency issues” that lead to further misinformation and maladministration in smaller counties and rural areas. The other issue that Becker foresees is that some of these people will “undermine their own oath” and push for unrealistic full hand-counts or give access to losing candidates, but he doesn’t believe that is likely to be widespread. 

For Becker, it is about staying vigilant. 

Gates remained optimistic. 

At the Maricopa County level, the number of eyeballs on the process between livestreams, workers, and audits done by the county, should make sure that any bad faith actors that do make their way into the process are prevented from engaging in such activity, according to Gates. 

Representatives from the parties are present at vote counts, legal observers are present, cameras are on during counting and tabulating and critical infrastructure is locked. Additionally, Gates said he believes that people with doubts might be persuaded when they see how the process works. 

Gates also said that the county has already begun working with local law enforcement and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to start ensuring the safety of workers at all levels. Attorney General Kris Mayes earlier this year said her office had already begun shifting focus from her predecessor’s Election Integrity Unit to go after those who threaten election officials and workers. 

It is the “Pat Tillmans of the world” that Gates said are interested in working on elections now. Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army shortly after the events of Sept. 11. Gates said that those who get into the work don’t get into it to get rich but do so for the love of the work and for the good they feel it brings to the community. 

“If you want to be where the action is, Arizona is the place to be,” Gates joked. 

Whack-a-mole

Arizona also continues to be a hotbed for mis-and-disinformation related to the administration of elections. 

“This is the whack-a-mole problem,” Becker said of addressing misinformation. “They have a lot of time, they have a lot of grassroots folks.” 

Since 2020, Arizona has been at the forefront of national stories related to elections and misinformation campaigns. Most notably the Cyber Ninjas “audit” of the 2020 Presidential election conducted by the Republican-led Arizona Senate. 

“It doesn’t make me feel good to be vindicated,” Gates said of recent news from public records releases that displayed the partisan nature of the Cyber Ninjas audit

“This is not about election integrity, it is about outcomes,” Becker said of the efforts such as the Cyber Ninjas “audit” and others that aim to create loopholes for state lawmakers to have power over elections that are not granted by the Constitution.  

“We can give no harbor to disinformation,” Becker said, adding that many who spread it are “bad-faith actors” who will more often than not change their strategy as time goes on. 

A good example of recent disinformation was by the campaign of former GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, which used existing footage of election workers conducting a normal procedure that the Lake campaign edited to say was a secret voting equipment test. 

“This is not an ideological issue,” Gates said. “This is about truth versus lies.” 

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