Defense Against the Dark Arts in the 2020 Election
By Quentin Palfrey and Jordan Usdan
If the 2020 election is free and fair, current polls suggest that Joe Biden is the clear favorite to win the presidency. However, the United States faces an unprecedented set of challenges to our democracy. An increasingly desperate President Trump frequently lies about “voter fraud” to justify greater obstacles to registering and voting, particularly among communities of color and student populations.
Longstanding racially biased obstacles to voting such as long lines and voter purges have intensified dramatically during the pandemic. Hostile foreign actors that interfered in our last presidential election will likely attempt to do so again.
With three months to go before the election, President Trump’s voter suppression plan is becoming increasingly clear. In addition to tried-and-true tactics like filing lawsuits, sending an army of “election monitors” to polling places, promoting discriminatory voter identification laws, and blocking election reforms necessary to vote safely during the pandemic, the Trump team boasts that it is building a “death star” campaign fueled by massive investments in micro-targeted digital messaging.
Across social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Trump and his allies promote false narratives to suggest that Americans should not trust election results, laying the groundwork for disputing the legitimacy of the election if it does not go Trump’s way. Trump’s online efforts have nothing to do with “election integrity” and everything to do with spreading false claims that Democrats are rigging the election, foreign actors will submit bogus absentee ballots, and millions of undocumented immigrants will fraudulently vote for Democrats.
In 2016, online tactics aiming to subvert democracy took the world by surprise. We cannot afford to be unprepared again in 2020. Instead, we must act decisively to protect our democracy from voter suppression and online disinformation aimed at undermining the integrity of our elections.
First, the most powerful way to combat disinformation is to spread accurate information widely and rapidly rebut viral lies. We must broadly and proactively provide accurate information to voters about the current election rules, including how to register and where and when to vote. One great source of accurate information is Vote.org. Additionally, we must develop broad listening networks and rapid response processes to make sure that disinformation is debunked quickly.
The Election Protection Coalition is building this kind of “listening network” and actively recruiting volunteers. We must be on the lookout for messages that seek to confuse voters, such as that the election has been postponed due to COVID-19, that Republicans vote on Tuesday and Democrats on Wednesday, or that candidates have dropped out when they have not done so.
Second, state and local election officials must communicate proactively and clearly about election rules, especially if laws or polling places change because of the pandemic. Election officials should take an “all of the above” approach to making it safe and easy for eligible voters to register and vote. In addition to extensive no-fault mail-in voting options, states and municipalities should make sure there are enough poll workers, polling places, and personal protective equipment to ensure that voting will be safe and that voters will not have to stand in long lines. And then elections officials should clearly communicate that in-person voting is safe.
Third, journalists and social media platforms must play an active role in ensuring that voters get accurate and timely information about the election. Social media platforms have a responsibility to enforce their rules about voting-related disinformation and should proactively promote accurate information about voting processes. Journalists should directly call out lies about voting, even — or especially — when it comes from official sources like President Trump’s Twitter account. There is no evidence for President Trump’s false claims that mail-in voting is associated with fraud. These lies should not be given equal credence relative to research-based information about mail-in voting by groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Brennan Center for Justice. Now more than ever, the media has a sacred responsibility to provide accurate information to the public, rather than treating strategically motivated disinformation as part of a “both sides” debate.
The integrity of our elections is indeed at risk in 2020 but vote-by-mail is not the culprit. The risk to our democracy stems from a cynical attempt to undermine the integrity of our elections through disinformation and voter suppression. The future of our republic may depend on whether we are up to the challenge of combating these efforts over the next three months.
Quentin Palfrey, a leader in voter protection program in battleground states the last 15 years, is chair of the national Voter Protection Corps; Jordan Usdan is a former voter protection coordinator for the Obama campaign and Federal Communications Commission official who now works in the technology industry.