Authorities ramp up fight against misinformation and voter suppression

Expert fear 2020 election could be a "perfect storm" for misinformation.

October 29, 2020, 5:41 AM

When Ohio authorities indicted two men this week accused of trying to deceive and threaten voters with more than 85,000 misleading robocalls to residents of Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, the crackdown was in part meant to send a message.

"The right to vote is the most fundamental component of our nation's democracy," Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O'Malley said in a news release on Tuesday. "These individuals clearly infringed upon that right in a blatant attempt to suppress votes and undermine the integrity of this election. These actions will not be tolerated."

As Election Day nears, those indictments are part of a broad effort across numerous states to combat a range of last-minute tactics that campaigns may try and use to trick or intimidate people who plan to vote. Election officials are especially focused on the unique aspects of the 2020 elections -- as voters may be navigating unfamiliar new ways to cast ballots safely amid the pandemic.

Bhaskar Chakravorti, the dean of global business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, told ABC News that this year has been the "perfect storm" for misinformation.

"We are in the middle of a pandemic which has been accompanied by its own surge of misinformation and now we are in the last stages in the countdown to the election," Chakravorti said. "Those parts of the country that are more important for election outcomes are going to be bombarded by misinformation."

PHOTO: A voter turns sideways as he eyes the opening of a ballot drop box before placing his ballot inside it Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Seattle.
A voter turns sideways as he eyes the opening of a ballot drop box before placing his ballot inside it Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson/AP

Jesse Littlewood, vice president of campaigns at Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group, told ABC News that because of the pandemic, "bad actors are taking advantage" and flooding voters with misleading information because the way people are accustomed to vote "may have been altered."

"We've seen false narratives about voting by mail and attempts to disenfranchise people based on their political affiliation," Littlewood said. "This leaves people confused and many of them give up and choose not to participate."

Voter suppression is not new

In 2008, a phony State Board of Elections flier advised Virginians to vote on different days. And in an effort to keep Black voters from the polls during Maryland's 2010 gubernatorial election, thousands of robocalls made to Democratic voters announced falsely that the election had already been decided.

In the last presidential election, targeted robocalls tried to trick some Oregon voters, telling them they were not registered to vote and their ballots would not be counted.

"The attempts of voter suppression in the history of our democracy predate social media," Littlewood said. "We have seen misinformation through billboards, flyers and robocalls attempting to suppress votes."

This week's indictment in Ohio involved allegations of improper robocalls produced by right-wing political agitators Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman. The indictments for telecommunications fraud alleges that the men set up robotic calls that warned potential voters that police and debt-collection companies would exploit their personal information if they voted.

"If you vote by mail, your personal information will be part of a public database that will be used by police departments to track down old warrants and be used for credit card companies to collect outstanding debts," a recording of one call said, according to local news accounts.

Wohl and Burkman pleaded not guilty to similar allegations in Michigan and their first court appearance in Ohio is scheduled for Nov. 13. An attorney for one of the men told reporters in Michigan that Wohl and Burkman have no criminal record and that they consider the charges a publicity stunt.

"The chance of conviction here in my opinion is zero, absolutely zero," the attorney, Scott Grabel, told the Detroit News. "It's involving a robocall which is protected speech."

While many of the tactics are familiar, elections officials say the ubiquity of social media has made it harder than ever to police.

PHOTO: People walk into a voting station to cast their ballot by early vote at the Marie Reed Elementary School in the Adams Morgan Neighborhood in Washington on Oct. 28, 2020.
People walk into a voting station to cast their ballot by early vote at the Marie Reed Elementary School in the Adams Morgan Neighborhood in Washington on Oct. 28, 2020.
Tom Brenner/Reuters

"Citizens across the country are being inundated with misinformation on a daily basis," said Aneta Kiersnowski, press secretary for Michigan Secretary of State, Joselyn Benson.

"Misinformation suppresses voters by sowing seeds of doubt in our elections to scare them into not voting."

Michigan officials, she said, have been encouraging voters to report false information so the state's attorney general can investigate and, when necessary, prosecute bad actors.

In some cases, misinformation surrounding the election may not be malicious, but come from individuals who think they are being helpful, according to Littlewood.

"We've seen some viral social media comments that have to do with when to mail your ballot or how to do it or what you should or shouldn't do," Littlewood said. "And this is problematic because people are not getting the correct information because most states have slightly different rules."

To prevent deceptive tweets and other forms of misinformation threatening Colorado's election, Secretary of State Jena Griswold announced a statewide initiative last week that includes a digital outreach to help voters identify false information and tips on how Coloradans can stop the spread of incorrect material.

In Maryland, the U.S. Attorney's Office partnered with the Justice Department and the FBI to launch a National Voter Disinformation Initiative to identify misinformation and potential voter suppression schemes nationwide.

"Nearly every FBI field office will be conducting open source searches on the internet and social media to identify disinformation," said Marcy Murphy, a spokesperson for the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office.

According to Murphy, voters in the state have been exposed to social media posts that identify the wrong day for the election, posts that incorrectly tell voters that a polling place is closed or posts that tell voters they can only vote by mail when in-person voting is an option.

In North Carolina, Attorney General Josh Stein released a fact sheet to inform voters of their rights and is working with state officials to stamp out all sources of misinformation that might target voters.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump gestures to supporters after a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport, Oct. 28, 2020, in Goodyear, Ariz.
President Donald Trump gestures to supporters after a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport, Oct. 28, 2020, in Goodyear, Ariz.
Evan Vucci/AP

Stein called President Donald Trump the leading source of misinformation after he held a rally in the state and suggested to his supporters that they attempt to vote both by mail and in person.

"Let them send it in and let them go vote, and if their system's as good as they say it is, then obviously they won't be able to vote," the president said at the early October rally. "If it isn't tabulated, they'll be able to vote."

Intentionally voting twice is illegal in North Carolina and elsewhere.

"North Carolinians have been subject to dangerous misinformation about this election," Stein said in a statement. "Here's the truth -- you can vote safely; your vote will count; and the winner will be the one with the most votes -- the election is not rigged."

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany later insisted the president was not encouraging voter fraud.

"The president does not condone unlawful voting," McEnany told ABC News' Jonathan Karl in September.

In California, a law passed by Gov. Gavin Newsom ahead of the upcoming election makes spreading misinformation about voting by mail a misdemeanor criminal offense. Sen. Henry Stern who authored the bill, told ABC News that without direct criminal liability, " it was going to be very hard to find these needles in a haystack."

"Everything is at stake," Stern said. "The spread of misinformation is a giant threat to our elections and we need to protect voters."

In Ohio, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Frank LaRose said the state has been ahead of the curve since last year in the fight against misinformation. And while indictments like those the ones this week involving the misleading robocalls make headlines, Ohio officials said their main focus has been to police the rhetoric about absentee voting.

"We've held a number of informational sessions and briefings with community leaders, especially in the minority community, to train them on what to look for and how to respond," said Maggie Sheehan, a spokesperson for the secretary of state. "The best way to combat misinformation and disinformation is to train as many as possible to recognize it and share what they've learned with their community."