The fight to combat election misinformation blurs partisan lines amid Trump's attack on mail-in voting

Officials from both parties are working to thwart efforts to suppress votes.

September 11, 2020, 5:06 AM

The country's war with election misinformation is blurring partisan lines, as state officials from both sides of the aisle are working in conjunction to fend off efforts to suppress votes -- particularly across key battlegrounds.

"The three things we're focused on right now are voter registration, poll worker recruitment and then making sure that we get accurate information out there," Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said in an interview with ABC News.

Against the backdrop of President's Donald Trump's relentless attempts to disparage vote-by-mail this cycle -- without evidence supporting his claims -- election officials are hustling to tackle threats of false information, which could lead to greater voter confusion. At the same time, they're gearing up for a presidential election heavily relying on mail ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We're living in consequential times with the pandemic, and with all the other things going on, and so this is why we need to be more alert than ever to that kind of disinformation that can be put out there," LaRose said.

Misinformation emerged as a central challenge in this year's election, after the 2016 presidential election saw the rampant spread of misleading and false information across social media platforms. This cycle, a key target of misinformation campaigns has become vote-by-mail, given its prominence in the election.

LaRose recently debunked a Twitter video after a relative pointed it out to his wife and he asked his office to investigate the content further.

In the video, which had been circulating in the state, a woman misleadingly alleges that absentee voting is not secure because the envelopes include voters' party affiliation. But Ohio never puts party affiliation on the outside of ballot envelopes in any election, LaRose explained, adding that the ballots the woman was speaking of were from a primary in Palm Beach County, Florida.

"One of my most important responsibilities is getting accurate information out there," LaRose said. "This one was a very sort of simple, straightforward proposition that the information shared in that video was not accurate. It didn't apply; it certainly didn't apply to Ohio."

Frank LaRose gives his victory speech after winning Ohio Secretary of State, Nov. 6, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio.
Justin Merriman/Getty Images, FILE

Ohio is once again a battleground this cycle, after Trump carried the state over Hillary Clinton by eight points in 2016 -- a relatively sizable advantage in a contest when a number of states that tipped the election in his favor were won by roughly one percentage point.

The Ohio secretary of state's office said it's looking for misinformation similar to the false information in the video, urban legends and rumors that spread on social media, as well as intentional disinformation campaigns. Ohioans can report misinformation they see around voting to the secretary of state's office.

LaRose's office has also worked to train communities on how to recognize and report misinformation, particularly minority communities, which are often targets for misinformation.

"You'll never be able to track down and debunk every myth or every rumor or every piece of disinformation," LaRose said. "It kind of could be compared to Whack-a-Mole, like there's always going to be another one popping up somewhere. But what's the better tactic is to help people be more inoculated against it, to be more skeptical of what they read."

In addition to debunking misinformation on social media, LaRose has called out misleading messages even when they emerge from members of his own party. When asked about the president urging his supporters to vote "twice" to test the electoral system last week, LaRose responded at a press conference Tuesday, "that is not something Ohioans should do."

"Certainly public officials misspeak from time to time, or say something that needs to be corrected," he said, adding later, "certainly that doesn't fall in the disinformation protocol that our office has set up, but it does fall under the category of what I guess you would call misinformation, where something incorrect is said. And, it's my responsibility as secretary of state to make sure Ohioans know the facts."

A similar fight against disinformation is unfolding in Michigan.

The secretary of state and attorney general, both Democrats, are investigating a fallacious robocall targeting voters in Detroit, a Democratic bastion, which they said is using "racially-charged stereotypes to deter voting by mail."

"This is an unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote," said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in a statement late last month. "The call preys on voters' fear and mistrust of the criminal justice system -- at a moment of historic reckoning and confrontation of systemic racism and the generational trauma that results -- and twists it into a fabricated threat in order to discourage people from voting."

The recording peddles false information about mail-in ballots in an effort to dissuade voters from using the alternative -- claiming vote-by-mail exposes their personal information to police to dig up "old warrants" and credit card companies to collect "outstanding debt."

The woman on the robocall says it was made on behalf of Project 1599, which is an operation spearheaded by Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, both right-wing conspiracy theorists.

"Don't be finessed into giving your private information to the man. Stay safe and beware of vote by mail," the recording says.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks at a news conference in Lansing, Mich., March 5, 2020.
David Eggert/AP, FILE

"Though the caller claims to be associated with Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl -- two political operatives with a known reputation for spreading misinformation in an effort to gain notoriety -- the source of the call is still unknown," Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a joint statement. It is also not clear at this point how many Detroit residents received the robocall or if it is targeting any other cities in the state.

The calls are not confined to Michigan, though, as they have been targeting voters in other states -- including some of this cycle's most crucial battlegrounds. Officials in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Illinois made similar warnings to dispel any erroneous claims about vote-by-mail in the robocall, reiterating that the voting tactic is "safe and secure." They are now working together to counter any potential ramifications from the robocall.

"These states have indicated to us that they have received similar robocall complaints from residents in their urban centers, though it's unclear how pervasive the calls have been," Ryan Jarvi, a spokesperson for Nessel's office, told ABC News in a statement. "We will continue to work with partners in other states and levels of government to evaluate and address these criminal offenses."

As the investigation into the robocall continues, election administrators, Benson said, are focused on identifying "trusted sources" to deliver accurate information to voters who are being "inundated" by "a rising tide of political rhetoric that is directly designed to confuse voters."

Benson, who is overseeing Michigan's election in the age of COVID-19, announced on Wednesday that her office is sending mailers to the state's 4.4 million active registered voters to accurately inform them how to apply to vote away from a polling site, and another 700,000 Michiganders will be mailed a letter detailing how to register to vote.

But her endeavor to expand vote-by-mail in Michigan -- a state Trump carried by the narrowest of margins four years ago, when Clinton saw less-than-stellar turnout -- also landed her in the president's crosshairs after she announced a plan to mail absentee ballot applications to all 7.7 million registered voters in Michigan.

Trump singled out Michigan for its expansion of vote-by-mail back in May, falsely claiming that the decision was made "illegally." A Michigan judge late last month affirmed the move, dismissing a lawsuit challenging Benson's authority and arguing that the secretary of state does have the power to mail applications to voters.

Benson's clash with the White House comes two years after Michigan eased restrictions on voting practices, by allowing any voter to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse. More than 2.1 million voters in Michigan have already requested an absentee ballot for November's election -- a record in the battleground -- with still about eight weeks to go.

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