by Mike Flunker, Editor-in-Chief, UAS Whalesong
Since 2016, America has seen repeat claims regarding the validity of our local and national elections. Narratives like “the election was stolen” became increasingly common in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020, and many candidates since then have used similar claims to justify their losses. Do these claims have any merit? Is there any evidence of widespread voter fraud and conspiracy?
Thankfully no, there isn’t any evidence that any political party, organization, or foreign government has interfered in the way our votes are collected, counted, and reported. Mistrust in our election processes is not a new phenomenon, according to Kaia Henrickson, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science. There has always been a certain level of misinformation, disinformation, and election mistrust present in American politics, but the internet has amplified and propagated these narratives, she said.
Additionally, it’s very easy to be misinformed if you are uninformed about how these processes work. Those who push misinformation take advantage of this fact to sow distrust.
“The average American probably doesn’t know how voting systems are put together and how elections are run,” Henrickson said. “It allows someone to come in and show a photo, or talk about something happening as though it’s wrong. ‘The ballot workers are doing X,’ making it seem like they’re mishandling the vote, when really what’s happening is a normal part of the process.”
According to Henrickson, the way U.S. voting systems are put together makes fraud very unlikely.
And while the narratives have continued, they may become less common, said Glenn Wright, UAS Associate Professor of Political Science.
“Nationwide, that narrative has played very poorly with the electorate,” he said.
Wright explained that across the country, election deniers on the ballot did relatively poorly. Part of that reason may be that those who believe the system is rigged are unlikely to even vote in the first place, since they think their vote wouldn’t count. If voters who support those candidates aren’t voting, those candidates won’t do well.
“I think that if politicians are smart, they’ll start to shy away from that now. The reason why makes sense, essentially it doesn’t take a lot of sophisticated thought to go from ‘the system is rigged,’ to ‘my vote doesn’t even count,’ to ‘why do I bother voting.’” he said.
Voter turnout is a huge problem to politicians, according to Wright. The voter climate in America has been changing, with increasing political polarization and Gen Z voters turning up at the polls.
“There are fewer and fewer undecided voters. Twenty years ago, there was a big clump of voters in the middle who didn’t have a strong affiliation, a real strong connection to one party or another. Even when they did think of themselves as Democrats or Republicans, they would often vote across the aisle,” he said.
Since the number of undecided voters has shrunk, getting people to actually vote has become far more important. Candidates who push a narrative that leads to voters to skip an election because they think their vote doesn’t count, does not help those candidates win elections.
“On the other hand, I think there are definitely some ideas that I categorize as kind of conspiracy theory-ish, sort of zombie ideas, ideas that refuse to die,” Wright said.
These zombie ideas, like widespread voter fraud being commonplace, are likely to keep coming up every election, even if they are repeatedly proven untrue.
Recognizing False Narratives and Misinformation
Misinformation comes from many different sources. Echo chambers, or places where the same ideas are repeated, are commonplace on the internet. Henrickson warns that a lot of misinformation could come from sources someone once trusted. Additionally, many people aren’t likely to recognize misinformation if it validates their pre-existing beliefs or biases, Wright said.
Knowing where your information is coming from, and continually vetting your sources is at the core of recognizing misinformation. A quick Google search is a good starting point. Are there multiple sources for this information? Has it been picked up by any mainstream news organizations?
Mainstream media like The New York Times or The Washington Post are not infallible, but they have credibility, editorial boards, and an abundance of fact-checkers where other sources may not. Identifying headlines that include words like “ballots lost” or “ballots found” or incite strong emotions are often representative of election-based misinformation, according to Henrickson.
For the UAS community, resources exist to help combat misinformation. Egan Library has a number of physical newspapers and news magazines, as well as database access to most newspapers across the country. When growing your own knowledge base is the key to fighting misinformation, it pays to stay informed.