Originally written im November 2021.
- How does voter fraud happen?
- How could mail-in voting lead to voter fraud?
- How could election fraud lead to voter fraud?
- How could foreign interference lead to voter fraud?
- Do Americans still believe in the electoral system?
- 5 principles to help pastor doubtful voters
“Can we really trust our elections?”
It’s a question many have been asking over the course of the last year and beyond. From foreign interference to voter fraud, countless stories have been written and shared depicting a political system in shambles. We hear that these fraudulent elections are “rigged” in order to cater to those powerful enough to ensure that their candidate wins.
Chances are high that, as a pastor, you have encountered this issue from those you have been called by God to lead.
If you haven’t, you will.
Whether it’s the allegations of Russian collusion in 2016, the “Stop the Steal” movement in 2020, sweeping claims of voter suppression, or any of the other times that people and political parties have cast doubts on an election that did not go their way, these assertions have proven too effective as a political strategy to think either side will stop using them anytime soon.
As a result, pastors must decide how they will lead in these politically charged election cycles.
With conditions already heating up for what could be an extremely contentious election in 2022, pastors should begin strategizing how best to serve their people while navigating these muddy waters in a way that both honors God and keeps his kingdom priorities as their top concern. Left unaddressed, the potential is great that this issue will cause division and devastation both in congregations and the small group communities within them.
To that end, we will examine how much truth is behind the distrust of our elections and provide some broad background on the issues before addressing five pastoral applications.
NOTE: Due to the political nature of this topic, we’ve included the perceived biased leanings of many sources if we think such bias pertains to the evidence. Such transparency should offer a less divisive presentation of the issues because we show how we arrived at a cohesive view of this issue while consulting both “sides.”
How does voter fraud happen?
Allegations of fraud surrounding an election are usually levied in three distinct ways:
- Voter fraud
- Election fraud
- Foreign interference
All will be discussed, but voter fraud has received the most publicity of late.
For details on how the tallying process on the ground works, see Vox’s (leans left) explainer video, “How the US counts votes.” Each state counts votes a bit differently, but note the built-in security: election officials must work in pairs, each with a different party affiliation, to prevent corruption.
If this issue is a passion for you or any in your congregation, we would encourage them to run to become election officials.
How could mail-in voting lead to voter fraud?
“Voter fraud” refers to fraud committed by one voter.
Examples include impersonating someone else, voting on behalf of a deceased person, voting twice in different counties, etc. Though voter fraud has often been a hot topic, former President Trump’s claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election results have placed the issue at the forefront of our nation’s consciousness.
Neither political side should fear greater scrutiny of election integrity, and steps to that end could help all Americans have higher confidence in the legitimacy of our elections. Still, much debate persists around these issues, and it’s important to understand why that is the case.
One of the most commonly suspected ways in which such voter fraud is allegedly perpetrated is through mail-in voting.
Before getting into the details of mail-in voting, it’s important to note that the legal practice of it does not seem to favor one party over the other according to a massive study by Stanford.
There are two kinds of mail-in voting:
- absentee ballots, which are requested ahead of time
- universal mail-in ballots, where ballots are sent out en masse
Eric Eggers with PragerU (leans right) argues that universal mail-in ballots are ineffectual because of government/bureaucratic inefficiency. This holds practical merit, though some would argue it was necessary in certain states given COVID. Indeed, NPR (leans left) reports that more than 550,000 absentee ballots were rejected in 2020 due to various reasons like missing signatures. While many of those were informed of their ballot’s rejection and were able to subsequently vote in person, that number seems concerning. It’s technically less difficult to commit voting fraud with mail-in ballots—that’s fairly uncontested—but just because it’s less difficult doesn’t mean it’s easy or widespread.
According to Darrell M. West for the Brookings Institute, “Cases of voter fraud [including mail-ins] that have been documented tend to be quite localized.” It seems that if fraud is widespread enough to affect election outcomes, it’s incredibly difficult to cover up the evidence.
While universal mail-in voting is questionable for practical reasons and does technically make voter fraud easier to commit, any role mail-in voting may have played in voter fraud has been negligible.
And that has been the case for other forms of voter fraud as well.
The Heritage Foundation (leans right) cites 1,334 “proven instances of voter fraud” since 1982. Though they keep this database to help improve the security of elections, this number includes local elections as well, not just presidential elections. This list is not exhaustive or comprehensive since not every incident is caught. All things considered, however, that low number reflects the immense stability and integrity of our elections
The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan site (which nonetheless leans left), includes a page of nineteen analyses and studies, multiple court case rulings, and nine government investigations that conclude voter fraud is rare. They produced this resource in 2017, but have since published articles reaffirming that statement.
As one example of many, Wisconsin election officials identified twenty-seven possible cases of fraud out of 3.3 million ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election. Republican lawmakers called for a nonpartisan audit of the system, which took months to complete. Though parts of the election administration were sloppy and the team recommended tightening up consistency across the state, they also said that the audit showed the election was secure and revealed no “widespread fraud.”
Similar efforts have been made in Arizona, a contested state in which the final vote count for the 2020 presidential election was incredibly close. Republicans pushed through concerns of legality to audit Maricopa County’s entire system of procedures. The private company, called Cyber Ninja, was paid by Republicans and raised money to conduct the audit. The hand recount showed that President Biden won by slightly more than first thought.
The Daily Signal (leans right) also claimed that the audit lists some “disturbing findings,” like “23,344 mail-in ballots voted from a prior address; 9,041 more ballots returned by voter than received; 5,295 voters that potentially voted in multiple counties.” If these findings were accurate, the resulting votes would not have given Trump the victory.
If these concerns were true issues, they would certainly warrant updates and reform to the election process, but their claims are contested. And many, (especially on the left) critique the report’s findings. Additionally, many claim that these discrepancies can be explained without reference to voter fraud.
If this feels like a mess, it is.
Though Trump brought to bear several dozen court cases in different states after the November election showed he had lost, essentially all cases were rejected on the basis of no evidence of widespread fraud or they were withdrawn. The rest have come to nothing. On November 12, 2020, federal election security officials stated that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.” They also highlighted this line: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
One can look at the report as fueled by conspiracy and partisan interest. Or one can see it as a concerning list of problems that needs to be investigated by law enforcement and reforms that need to be made to the system.
In either case, here’s what’s clear: widespread voter fraud is not as widespread as some claimed.
Audits have shown that the administrative side of elections needs improvement in many states, and this should be a source of both parties working together to strengthen election integrity. Restoring faith in election integrity should be a bi-partisan effort, but these efforts should be focused on the right issues.
How could election fraud lead to voter fraud?
“Election fraud” refers to illegally interfering in the actual election process.
That could be poll workers, presidential campaigners, ballot counters, or anyone else involved with the election results.
Election fraud can also include any attempts to solicit votes through bribery, intimidation, or other illegal means. Election fraud rarely occurs; when it does, it normally occurs at local elections. For instance, a city councilman and five accomplices were charged with election fraud in August 2021 in California.
Not all instances of what seems like election fraud are as overtly illegal, however.
Gerrymandering is another way some Americans have been disenfranchised by elections. To reflect growing populations, the government redistricts states every ten years. These districts determine where your vote goes for house representatives and other officials.
Gerrymandering occurs when the party in power draws boundaries to give themselves an advantage. Democrats and Republicans both do this, though it has benefited Republicans more in recent years. Recent state and federal court cases have made it harder to gerrymander, though partisan redistricting is not illegal at a federal level.
Ultimately, election fraud, even more than voter fraud, can give people cause to doubt the validity of the democratic process.
Still, in local and federal elections, election fraud is extremely rare. The point is not to discourage accountability, but rather to clarify and address the extreme concerns that were carried forward by the “Stop the Steal” campaign and former President Trump.
Effective audits and accountability are good practices that Americans should support, but the existence of common or widespread election fraud is simply a myth, and even more so as it pertains to the 2020 election.
How could foreign interference lead to voter fraud?
The third kind of fraud that has negatively influenced people’s faith in our country’s democratic process is interference—both suspected and confirmed—by other countries.
Let’s consider the three most notable countries that may have interfered with recent US elections: China, Iran, and Russia.
Has China interfered in US elections?
In the 2018 midterms, it seems that the online threats from China were aimed more at painting China in a favorable light and not directly trying to affect the election’s outcome.
In September 2020, Reuters paraphrased Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, writing that “China has taken the most active role among countries seeking to interfere in the U.S. election and has the biggest program to influence domestic politics.”
While that report may have reflected the best intelligence of the time, a more recent government report found that China did not meddle with US elections in 2020. Though China may have meddled in the past, and though they have consistently criticized the US, it appears they held back during the previous election. The National Intelligence Council has “high confidence” in this assessment.
Has Iran interfered in US elections?
According to a government intelligence report made in August 2020, “We assess that Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections.”
According to a New York Times article, Iran obtained the voter registration data of US voters. They aimed to undermine Trump by spreading threatening emails falsely pretending to be from the “Proud Boys,” a far-right group that supports Trump.
Has Russia interfered in US elections?
Though numerous reports have shown that Russia clearly preferred Trump in 2016 as it actively interfered with elections, Russia did not tamper with voting machines. Instead, Russia hacked the DNC and released emails on Wikileaks and other sites. It was reported that if Hilary Clinton had won in 2016, Russia would have attempted to call the election into question and declare it a fraud, with the hashtag “#democracyRIP.”
Though some accused Trump of being in league with Russia, the Mueller special investigation found that Trump did not criminally collude with Russia. The Russian interference was conducted by the “Internet Research Agency,” according to the Mueller report. Russia still uses this agency to spread discord online.
One of their main objectives is to continually “undermine public faith in the US democratic process,” and they did so in the 2020 elections.
So, while Iran tried to undermine Trump, Russia tried to undermine Clinton and Biden, respectively. Iran used fake emails; Russia used social media and Russian television. China remained relatively neutral this term, though that doesn’t mean they won’t actively interfere in the future.
In some ways, such influence is par for the course in foreign policy.
In fact, the United States has influenced foreign elections dozens of times in the past. It’s also worth noting that the most recent US government report about foreign government election interference found no evidence that foreign actors changed the tabulation, ballots, or voting results in a technical way in the 2020 election. Rather, they used social media to sow discord and chaos, undermining Americans’ trust in our own Democratic processes.
In a sense, then, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to international election interference.
Do Americans still believe in the electoral system?
As Gallup polls noted prior to the 2020 election, “Americans’ current level of confidence in their elections is far from the lowest it has been at times in the past decade, but it is notably one of the worst ratings across the world’s wealthiest democracies.”
And the lack of trust is getting worse.
Republican confidence that the 2020 election was “free and fair” was down to 32 percent as of January 2021. The graph included in that article shows a sharp bifurcation in November. From January 2020 to October 2020, both Democrats and Republicans are fairly confident in the election. Then November occurs and the trust notably splits: Democrats begin to trust more, hovering around 80 percent; the GOP trusts less, dropping below 30 percent.
Since our election system is, in fact, very robust, why are so many Americans trusting the system less?
Often, the short answer is misleading facts, lies, or hasty generalizations spread across social media. (Note: For further information on how social media affects elections, please see the appendix to this article.)
The Washington Post (leans left) published an article after the 2016 election asking “Why don’t more Americans vote?” They concluded that when citizens believe there is widespread malpractice in their elections, they tend to vote less often.
Harvard released a report in December 2020 under the Electoral Integrity Project that examined public perception and the perception of eight hundred political scientists, asking them their expert opinion of the electoral system. (Party affiliation didn’t change their answer significantly).
While electoral procedures and officials were highly scored, the media’s coverage was given a low rating, as was the accessibility for legal voters to actually vote. However, it’s important to note that these experts from 2016 to 2020 believed that, in most areas, things have gotten worse, especially the “acceptance of the elections by all parties.”
So, it seems that Americans do not trust the electoral process as being democratic, or “fair and free,” but they doubt the process for different and sometimes opposing reasons.
The left is normally concerned that laws that may increase security reduce how easy it is to vote, especially for the impoverished. So they appear not to trust the elections because of issues like “voter suppression.”
The right is normally concerned that voting isn’t secure enough, and so they don’t trust the election because of “voter fraud.”
And both sides are concerned with foreign interference.
So, pastor, now what?
5 principles to help pastor doubtful voters
Despite many claims to the contrary, the evidence shows that the American people can have faith in our elections.
While some instances of voter fraud exist and will continue to pop up from time to time in elections to come, they have, historically, been insufficient to meaningfully sway outcomes.
However, that many Americans struggle to accept that reality should not come as a surprise. After all, we have been given many reasons to distrust the process and the people behind it on both sides of the aisle, even if there is no evidence that those reasons have actually changed the outcomes of our elections.
Unfortunately, the truth of the situation is not always sufficient to convince people.
For a number of reasons, there are and will continue to be many in our churches and in our society who persist in believing false allegations of fraud. Complicating matters, they may also promote such lies with a sense of conviction that comes to define much of their worldview.
So what can we do as pastors to help the people God has placed in our care come to accept the truth?
If that proves to be a bridge too far, how can we help prevent their misconceptions from hindering the work of the kingdom in their lives and in our communities?
While every situation is different, and learning to rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance is the most important component to a successful strategy, we believe the following five basic principles can help pastors navigate these waters well.
1. Know your people
When strategizing how to lead your church through a politically charged time, you must first know your own people.
Granted, depending on the size of your church, it may not be possible to know every person’s political and social leanings. However, taking the time to know your congregation will help you respond to their questions when these issues arise in the national conversation.
Relatedly, understanding who and what influences their perceptions of politics and these events is also helpful. Social media, for example, often plays a substantial role in crafting people’s views, particularly when it comes to politics.
Many basic issues around election integrity are becoming more and more partisan, helped along by emotionally charged media. In our understanding, the more divided, partisan, vitriolic, emotionally charged, and unreasonably conspiratorial, the more threatened our democratic processes become.
Though we made this point earlier, we reiterate: “A week after the 2020 presidential election, the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of Biden voters said they were confident that the election was conducted fairly and accurately, but only 29 percent of Trump voters said the same. There was almost no difference in confidence between these groups in the week before Election Day.”
If your congregation leans Republican or Democrat, left or right, you can likely know where they will fall on the issues. The key is to unify your people under Christ, encouraging them to respect and love those on the other side.
2. Diversify your ministry partners
The second principle to help guide your church in a way that minimizes the risks posed by the current state of politics in America is to diversify your ministry partners.
By actively seeking chances for your church to minister alongside and to people from different backgrounds, you can help your congregation get to know people beyond the stereotypes that often define them. Few things can better protect you and your church from falling victim to lies about people of a different political persuasion and beliefs than getting to know those people personally.
In a previous church that one of the authors of this paper attended, they had a business meeting that covered future demographic projections. Located at the edge of South Dallas, the church was becoming more racially diverse and consequently prioritized diverse worship and services to prepare to stand in unity. Every year, they scheduled a sermon on abortion and another week on racial reconciliation. The leaders knew their calling and congregation well and, submitted to Christ, that knowledge continues to bear fruit.
The pastors do not speak in support of either side of politics. However, they regularly exhort both “sides” to be unified under Christ, have grace with each other, and have open conversations. The congregation has continued to grow in numbers, and people are being brought to Christ by God’s grace.
When we make the effort to diversify the people we partner with in ministry, we can all gain a greater appreciation for the fact that there is usually more that unites us than separates us, even when it comes to politics.
For example, a survey reported that 75 percent of Americans agree that voting should require an ID to confirm who you are. However, many potential voting integrity laws/restrictions could disfavor minorities or those with lower incomes. However, this survey also states that “majorities of whites (74%), blacks (69%) and other minorities (82%) say voters should be required to show photo identification before being allowed to vote.” The poll also revealed that “eighty-nine percent (89%) of Republicans support voter ID requirements, as do 60% of Democrats and 77% of voters not affiliated with either major party.”
While the issue is split down party lines, requiring a photo ID to vote seems like a reasonable action forward.
Election audits, if properly understood, may offer another point of political agreement for a majority of Americans.
John Fund and Hans von Spakovsky for Spectator World (leans right) argue that “Audits restore faith in elections.” The Brennan Center for Justice (leans left) also says, “Post-election audits can ensure votes are recorded and tallied accurately and help restore public confidence in elections.”
It seems reasonable that regular audits performed fairly and effectively would help restore, not undermine, faith in the electoral system. And even when evidence of fraud calls that faith into question, the overwhelming majority on both sides of the aisle say violence is never appropriate in dealing with these issues.
These uniting points can help bridge the gap between sides as a starting point. No matter what, respect and love must reign over disagreement. (For help, see Dr. Jim Denison’s book “Respectfully, I Disagree: How to Be a Civil Person in an Uncivil Time”).
Make James 3:17 your anthem: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
3. Know who (and whose) you are
A third way to protect against the issues described above is to base our identity in our relationship with God rather than in our political party or the social causes that motivate us to action.
Look no further than The Atlantic article published in 2021 titled “The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart.” The author, Peter Wehner, is a Republican and Christian (and a staunch critic of Trump). This article points out the deep divisions being created by politics in the church, where now everyone must pick sides.
It’s not easy to hold fast to our identity in Christ above all else (1 Peter 2:9). To follow Christ means to hold him above country, political party, friends, and even family, to forsake all else (Matthew 6:24; Luke 14:26). You, being called to minister to your flock, must remember that Christ is ultimate—not our nation, not our politics, and certainly not you. Recall Philippians 3:20: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Rest easy knowing this: you don’t have all the answers, nor should your congregation expect you to. If you claimed to have all the answers, you put yourself in God’s place and should repent of that sin immediately. If your congregation expects you to know everything, ask yourself, “When have I reflected humility from the pulpit recently? When have I admitted to wrongdoing? Have I unwittingly set my people up to idolize me?” Know that it’s acceptable, even necessary, to admit “I don’t know.”
But what you do know and must know is that Christ has you in his hand.
When you preach the Scriptures and lead your congregation well, they will know that they are Christ’s, and pray that they do not put their hope in a person or a political party.
Here’s how to tell if your congregation is idolizing a political party:
- When their side loses, is that all they talk about for months on end?
- Do they express deep anguish, anger, and hopelessness when the other side wins?
- This isn’t about reasoned conversation, which is to be encouraged, but rather: Do they express despair?
If yes to any of the questions above, that probably means they may have identified more with a particular political party than with Christ.
Scott Dudley, the senior pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington, refers to Christians twisting Scripture to fit their own politics as “our idolatry of politics.” He’s heard of many congregants leaving their church because it didn’t match their politics, but he has never once heard of someone changing their politics because it didn’t match their church’s teaching.
4. Be a leader people can trust
Research by Scientific American showed that social media, in and of itself, did not make people more polarized, even in “echo chambers.” They split two small groups into Democrats and Republicans. Each group was placed into a small echo chamber and asked to discuss the polarizing issues of immigration, gun control, and unemployment. Even in their own bubbles, participants all became more moderate as they discussed the issues.
Scientific American concluded with further study that it was influencers who affect us so negatively. When people unite or rally around one person with a polarizing opinion who uses strong, emotional language, that is where deeper polarization occurs.
They concluded that “the problem of partisan bias is exacerbated on social media because online networks are often organized around a few key influencers.”
As divisiveness grows and partisanship widens, we lose the ability to clearly, rationally discuss the issues with our fellow humans. We become more emotionally charged. While this applies to all areas of ministry, Philipians 2:3 is especially relevant: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Over and over, we see that when our faith becomes dependent upon someone other than our savior, it will eventually break apart and divide rather than unite. This frequently happens with prominent, popular church leaders when they make the ministry about themselves. This pride can grow in any pastor, and that is why accountability is so critical.
To be trustworthy, be open to being wrong.
Exemplify humility. There is a reason that 1 Peter 5 starts with elders shepherding their flock and concludes with an exhortation for humility. It’s a powerful reminder: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:2–5).
Trust in the wisdom of God over your own wisdom (James 1:5).
As divisiveness grows, we must work even harder to avoid losing the ability to clearly and rationally discuss the issues with our fellow humans. When others become more emotionally charged, that’s when it is most important for pastors to be the calmest voice in the room and exemplify the kind of leadership their people can trust.
5. Be the kind of pastor your church wants to retain
A final principle to keep in mind for navigating these politically divisive waters is to strive to be the kind of pastor your congregation wants to lead their church.
That does not mean agreeing with their every whim or affirming something you know to be a lie. You are still called to lead and to do so in a reasoned and God-inspired manner. Rather, being the kind of pastor your church wants means practicing the kind of servant leadership that is defined by the humility, gentleness, and respect Jesus emulated throughout his ministry.
It means taking responsibility for shepherding and teaching your people, treating them well enough that, even if (and, perhaps, when) trouble arises and standing for unpopular truths sets part of your flock against you, you will have built up enough goodwill and trust that they are more likely to stand behind you.
In the first few centuries of the church’s history, Christianity grew and thrived under the constant threat of persecution. In most places, all that was required for believers in the then-illegal religion of Christianity to be dragged before the courts and forced to stand trial for their faith was to have another citizen officially accuse them of being a Christian. Surviving in that context meant living in such a way that the people around them found more value in continuing to be their neighbors than in whatever they might gain by turning Christians in.
As pastors charged with leading God’s people in increasingly uncertain and polarizing times, we must learn to take a similar approach. Again, that does not mean compromising the truth or bowing to the whims of other people, but it does mean serving and loving in such a way that we create allies rather than adversaries within our churches.
As the election process becomes more divided along partisan lines, pitting American against American, we may lose sight of one another’s rationality and humanity. As we may blindly follow leaders, we follow them into emotionally charged politics that pits “us” versus “them.”
Our call is for careful reflection and research. Do not take a tweet or Facebook post at face value, but inquire further and balance reactions with this question: “How much time has passed since this story broke?”
Temper emotional reactions with love, humility, and reason. Churches can be some of the most ethnically and politically divided communities. What kind of testimony is that to a broken and divided country? That doesn’t mean a refusal to stand up for God’s truth about issues like abortion, but it does mean loving those who disagree, even through social media.
Americans are our own worst enemy when it comes to election processes. It should be reassuring to know that, in fact, the democratic process is alive and well. Reliance on social media and blindly following leaders will not lead to productive conversations or improvements. While it’s clear that we need to work toward restoring confidence in America’s democratic process, we need to do so with the right approach and with thoughtful and good research.
And, as a pastor, you are uniquely positioned to do just that and encourage your church to do the same.
Even well-intentioned, rational people can be swayed into believing something that isn’t true. So don’t be surprised if even the people in your church whom you would normally trust—deacons, elders, small group leaders, etc.—come to you with some ideas that stray from reality. When that happens, go to God first and ask him to help you understand how to best minister to those who are in error.
Above all, exemplify humility and bring people to Christ so that his power will transform them to love and respect their neighbors with whom they disagree.
- Why do pastors need to know and think about election integrity?
- What about the nature of voter fraud makes it particularly easy to overestimate as a problem?
- What is gerrymandering and what role does it play in election integrity?
- What role do foreign countries like Iran, Russia, and China play in our election process? Is it common for any other nations (like the US) to try to interfere with elections in other countries?
- What role does the media play in determining people’s perceptions of election integrity?
- What is it about election integrity issues that seems to make even the people in our churches we might normally trust most, more prone to believing something that isn’t true?
- What about the 2022 election makes you think pastors need to start preparing now?
- What can pastors do to prepare for possible election integrity controversies in 2022?
How does social media affect voting?
Though the following information may become its own report, we wanted to include this research to help unfold the reasons why election fraud reports are so overwhelming.
Bias in social media and reporting
In all fairness, we’ve found that conservatives have decent reason to be skeptical of established media, which tends to lean left. Social media, in their attempts to manage misinformation (which is prevalent and often propagated by users on the right), have sometimes censured what turns out to be either correct or at least plausible.
For instance, the New York Post (leans right) reported on leaked emails from Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, in 2020. They showed potential corruption when it appeared that Hunter Biden had used his influence to introduce an overseas business partner to then-Vice President Biden in exchange for money. Politico claimed in 2020 that the email scandal was disinformation from Russia. The media widely dismissed the case, calling the allegations “laughably weak” and propaganda from Trump. An NPR editor said the story was a “waste of time” in a tweet.
Further evidence came forward substantiating that the emails were genuine and recovered from Hunter Biden’s laptops and could have put Biden in hot water with corruption allegations.
According to one report, the New York Times retroactively removed the word unsubstantiated from an article last year about the report.
Even worse than the apparent media bias, for some time Twitter barred the New York Post’s feed to prevent content about the laptop scandal spreading under the supposition of misinformation.
What remains frightening about certain conspiracy theories like QAnon is that they can lead respectable people to make brave choices based on factually wrong claims. For instance, a family man claiming to be a devout Christian broke into a pizzeria with multiple guns looking to put an end to a supposed secret child sex trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton. The man pleaded guilty and went to prison.
In 2020, QAnon’s string of conspiracy theories was in some way supported by 6 percent of registered voters in the US, which equates to nine million people. The FBI warns that these kinds of conspiracy theories are a new domestic threat.
While most current conspiracy theories appeal to alt-right groups, people of all kinds and political persuasions may be susceptible to being hastily drawn into falsehood if it supports their views.
“Stop the Steal”
“Stop the Steal,” the hashtag and tagline of President Trump after the November elections of 2020, spread like wildfire across the US. Though many dispute that Trump is to blame for the January 6 riots, it is clear that if the “Stop the Steal” campaign never existed, the riot would never have happened.
As reported by the New York Times, Trump tweeted the following on December 19, 2020: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th.” Another read: “Be there, will be wild!”’
The nonpartisan forum Just Security provides a massive timeline of the phrase “Stop the Steal” and its place in social media leading up to January 6, 2021. In one highlight, they point to The Gateway Pundit, which ran an article saying: “If you are not willing to fight the Communists you will be ruled by the Communists. Obviously, Democrats will win the 2020 election if they ARE ALLOWED to steal the vote in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada and North Carolina.”
Other sample social media instances leading up to January 6 include:
“December 7, 2020: Stop the Steal’ organizer Ali Alexander tweets that he is ‘willing to give [his] life for this fight.’ The Arizona Republican Party shares the tweet and adds, ‘He is. Are you?’”
“December 9, 2020: Neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin posts an article on Daily Stormer urging his readers to attend the Stop the Steal rally on Dec.12, writing: ‘There is nothing you could be doing that could be more important than this.’”
All of this led to the initially peaceful protest at the Capitol that ended in the Capitol storming.
A researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory remarked, “This is a demonstration of the very real-world impact of echo chambers.”
“Stop the Steal” demonstrates the power of social media to propagate false claims that lead to serious, violent consequences throughout the nation.
Harassment and violence toward election officials
According to a survey of election officials, one-third say they are somewhat or very concerned for their safety. Seventeen percent say they have been threatened because of their job as an election official.
For evidence of the violent, real-world repercussions of division around false election fraud claims, look no further than January 6, 2021. It was the first time the US did not have a peaceful transition of power (though Trump eventually peacefully conceded to Biden). Although we could point to other violence perpetrated by the extreme left, those issues sit outside the scope of this paper.
Around six hundred arrests have been made, and one estimate puts the storming mob at around eight hundred. Though many were tied with extremist groups and alt-right groups, many also appeared to be normal Americans—one of the more frightening facts about the Capitol riot arrests. According to an analysis by The Atlantic (leans left), “a large majority of suspects in the Capitol riot have no connection to existing far-right militias, white-nationalist gangs, or other established violent organizations.” Over 150 officers were injured in the attack, and five people died in connection with the riots.
- Gavin Newsom and election fraud claims in California
- False Election Claims in California Reveal a New Normal for G.O.P.: talks about Republicans alleging voter fraud in the Gavin Newsom recall election.
- Republicans are laying the groundwork to lie that the California recall was stolen: talks about Republicans alleging voter fraud in the Gavin Newsom recall.
- As Newsom leads California recall polls, Larry Elder pushes baseless fraud claims: talks about Larry Elder setting up a tip line for voter fraud allegations.
- As sham candidate scandal shakes Florida politics, GOP ignores real election fraud, Democrats say: talks about alleged voter fraud by Republicans in Florida elections, though they show their work to some extent to substantiate some of the claims.
- The left’s perspective on voter accessibility
- Obama Assails Republican Push to Restrict Voting as He Stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia: briefly discusses Obama talking about voter ID restrictions, similar to how many Democrats may speak of voter fraud.
- The GOP’s Stealth War Against Voters: From 2016, calls voter ID laws “weapons of vote suppression” and calls systems like Crosscheck “a response to the imaginary menace of mass voter fraud.”
- Block the Vote: How Politicians are Trying to Block Voters from the Ballot Box: Many argue that higher voter “security” can come with serious consequences of disenfranchising minorities.
- The right’s perspective on voter security
- No One Knows Full Extent of Election Fraud. That’s Why We Track It.: Heritage points out that they don’t know the full extent of voting fraud, and evidence of any voter fraud means there could be significantly more that isn’t caught. They argue for greater voter security in light of that.
- Is Voter Fraud Real?: PragerU argues that voter fraud is relatively easy to commit if you can exploit the flawed records system.
- A quoted study in the PragerU video: “24 million voter registrations in the United States are either ‘invalid or significantly inaccurate,’ and nearly 3 million people are believed to be registered to vote in more than one state.” This study was conducted in 2012. Their arguments here point to the fact that it is relatively easy to commit voter fraud in certain States. They also argue against voter harvesting and non-citizen voting.
- The division between left and right over voting
- According to Pew Research, 74 percent of conservatives believe that voting is a “privilege with responsibilities that can be limited.” 87 percent of liberals, in contrast, believe that voting is a “fundamental right.”
- In certain states, stricter integrity is being enacted.
- Cyber Ninja
- Voter harvesting
- This specifically refers to political activists collecting absentee ballots. In some states, like California, ballot harvesting is legal, while in others like Texas, it’s illegal.
- A woman was recently arrested for ballot harvesting and could be sentenced to twenty years in prison in Texas. She harvested votes to favor a Republican Congresswoman.
- Double voting
- Some are concerned about double voting. Harvard conducted a study that estimated, at most, one in four thousand votes cast in 2012 were double votes, but that clerical errors could explain most or all of them since they were comparing poll books to vote records.
- According to research by the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, “noncitizens don’t illegally vote in detectable numbers.” In Pennsylvania, officials estimated that around 544 votes were cast by non-citizens between 2000 through 2017 out of 93 million votes, which, though technically “detectable,” amounts to about 0.000006 percent.
- Historical ballot controversies
- The most infamous ballot controversy was the recount in Florida between Al Gore and George W. Bush for the 2000 presidential election. The “butterfly” ballots accidentally misled many voters and favored Bush over Gore. We bring this up to say that fair investigations are critical to resolving questions around fraud and errors in voting. The issue arises when half-truths, misleading, lies, or simply misunderstandings are rapidly picked up and spread by social media before they can be more thoroughly investigated.
- More electoral integrity
- Harvard released a report in December of 2020 under the Electoral integrity project that examines the perception of 800 political scientists. Though we referenced them earlier in this paper, here’s a longer quote of their conclusion: “Election experts overwhelmingly rejected claims of widespread fraud occurring in their state during the balloting and vote tabulation stages of the 2020 U.S. elections. These assessments are fully consistent with evidence from the courts and the series of reports by state officials, federal agencies, and other authoritative sources.”
- Both sides are prone to bias
- An article in 2014 published by the Washington Post points out that people are more likely to believe that there was election fraud if their favored candidate didn’t win. That includes both political sides.