The Just Security Podcast

Disinformation and Threats Ahead of the 2024 U.S. Elections

December 19, 2023 Just Security Episode 50
The Just Security Podcast
Disinformation and Threats Ahead of the 2024 U.S. Elections
Show Notes Transcript

The 2024 U.S. presidential election is less than a year away and the primary process starts in January.

The election will serve as a stress test for American democracy: Will candidates accept the results? Will voters? Are governments and social media platforms ready for a barrage of disinformation? And can election administrators maintain confidence in free and fair elections as they work with constantly shifting election laws, court rulings, and voter suppression efforts?

Joining the show to discuss how election administrators are preparing for 2024 and the risks they are confronting now is Allison Mollenkamp. Allison is a Fellow at Just Security and recently interviewed election officials from eight states around the country.  

Show Notes: 

  • Paras Shah (@pshah518
  • Allison Mollenkamp
  • Allison’s Just Security article “America’s Election Officials Fight Disinformation and Death Threats Ahead of 2024”
  • Just Security’s U.S. election protection coverage
  • Music: “The Parade” by “Hey Pluto!” from Uppbeat: (License code: 36B6ODD7Y6ODZ3BX)
  • Music: “Breathing Water (Solo Piano)” by Cedric Vermue from Uppbeat: (License code: MH0XYFEO1YABWIMJ)

Paras Shah: The 2024 U.S. presidential election is less than a year away, and the primary process starts in January.

The election will serve as a stress test for American democracy. Will candidates accept the results? Will voters? Are governments and social media platforms ready for a barrage of disinformation? And can election administrators maintain confidence in free and fair elections as they work with constantly shifting election laws, court rulings, and voter suppression efforts?

This is the Just Security Podcast. I’m your host, Paras Shah. 

Joining the show to discuss how election administrators are preparing for 2024 and the risks they are confronting is Allison Mollenkamp. Allison is a Fellow at Just Security and recently interviewed election officials from eight states around the country. 

Hey, Alison, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Allison Mollenkamp: Thanks for having me.

Paras: What kind of threats are election workers facing across the country as state and federal elections loom in 2024?

Allison: Well, big picture, a lot of this stuff stems from disinformation and misinformation, a lot of it online. Some of the major things include a barrage of public records requests, unlike what officers have seen before. There's the need to combat disinformation and explain how elections work to the public. All of that is a lot of extra work, and that combined with the disinformation means these offices are losing staff, sometimes folks who have quite a bit of institutional knowledge for state elections. 

And then of course, there are personal threats against election workers. This kind of harassment has been reported pretty widely. For instance, a high-profile case, Rudy Giuliani accused two Georgia election workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, of fraud. Their story was part of the January 6 congressional hearings. They eventually brought a defamation suit against Giuliani and won. 

But there's also smaller scale stuff. I talked with an administrator in Minnesota who described just cases just from his state, including one administrator being followed to her car, another getting calls on her home phone, someone being harassed at the counter just of the election office. And then perhaps the most striking of the stories from the folks that I talked to was from Karen Brinson Bell, who's the executive director of the state board of elections in North Carolina. And her office started getting calls to their main line from this person who said things like someone is going to get hurt, or that kind of thing could lead to someone being murdered. And now this person not only has that mainline, but has her direct phone number that the office doesn't publish to the public. He says a legislator gave it to him. She doesn't know if that's true. And he actually called us, called her during our interview, and she didn't pick up but I could see that it shook her, that this is someone who makes these violent and vulgar comments about her, and that that's just something that shows up on her phone now. 

Paras: Wow. That’s definitely disturbing and so scary to deal with for many of these workers. Along with the intimidation factor, a lot of this is about the spread of misinformation and disinformation. What are administrators seeing when it comes to the spread of those types of falsehoods?

Allison: Well, this is something that we saw before the 2020 vote had even happened, coming from Trump and his allies to spread doubt in mail voting, to spread doubt in in drop boxes. A lot of these things became prominent because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the desire to give people options that would be safer to vote during that time. 

But it's also happening from figures you might have heard of or not heard of at all. I did some reporting for NPR last year about folks like Mike Lindell, who's a big name, the CEO of MyPillow, but also smaller scale folks like Seth Keshel, Douglas Frank and David Clements, and these are folks who traveled the country talking to maybe 20 people in a Mexican restaurant, or maybe 200 people in a larger setting, but spreading this disinformation about the election. It's this whole conspiracy media ecosystem. These folks appear on podcasts and blogs and articles and of course, social media. 

And, the people that devote their time to this, they are going into publicly available data, pointing to things they say look like fraud, and sometimes they get that information through public information requests. They heard from the media to go make these requests, and by media, I mean, this sort of conspiracy ecosystem. They get information, and then that feeds back into a new blog post, a new podcast, with new conspiracy theories. And, of course, we should say the election wasn't stolen, there is no proof of widescale fraud at all, but these conspiracy theories continue now, three years in. 

Paras: Right, and we typically think of these laws, like freedom of information laws, as avenues for transparency and openness in government, especially when they're used by reporters and media sources to uncover new information. But what did your reporting reveal about Freedom of Information Act requests that administrators are receiving? 

Allison: Yeah, so like you mentioned, these laws are often used by journalists or academics or researchers. They can, anyone can, file a Public Information Act request, obviously. But if it's something you're doing all the time, like, this is a boring system, you have to know exactly how a government office records information to know exactly what document to request, to craft your public information request. And even then, it's probably going to take months or even years to get the information that you're asking for. 

But those kinds of really tailored requests are not what election administrators told me about. They're seeing a barrage of incredibly broad requests, things that are not tailored and would produce a huge amount of information, things like, give me everything you have about the 2020 election, or all of your office's communications with third parties. And these are things that offices are trying to comply with. The folks that I talked with believe in transparency, but sometimes they're getting requests that use language that are not used in their states’ election laws. A very popular one is to ask for information about states’ relationship with Dominion, when Dominion voting systems haven't been used in that state ever. 

And the scale of the requests is just so different than it used to be. In North Carolina, their office, the state board of elections, said that in 2020, they estimate they got about 100 public records requests, but that in 2020, it shot up to 229, and in 2022, it was 330. So more than doubling the number of requests, and they're not just going to state level offices that have full time folks who can maybe try to answer these requests. They're also going to municipal and county offices where maybe in some cases, folks only work a few hours a week. So, the state offices in a lot of cases are trying to do their best to help the local offices deal with those requests. But this is a lot of work that people have to do. And I did hear expressed the worry that maybe some of that is intentional to sort of bog the system down and make this the work of administrating elections harder.

So, it's basically this vicious cycle, and the election administrators do want transparency. But they also want folks to understand that there are limitations to the data that they're looking at. If you're looking at raw voter rolls, that those aren't something that you can definitely make assumptions about who voted and when and when — there are limitations to that data. North Carolina has made an effort to increase the amount of data available publicly on its website without a request, but then people have more questions about that. The North Carolina office also does make some efforts to respond to conspiracy theories, especially if they think they're affecting particular people. For instance, in one case, there were apparently twin sisters who had the same initials, the same birthday because they were twins, and they lived at the same address. Those records did get combined on accident through a clerical error, but folks on the conspiracy side pointed to this as a case of fraud. They accused this woman of voting twice in every election for a long time. And obviously, by putting that out publicly like that puts that person in danger to make her the subject of conspiracy theory. 

So, in that case, the public information director that I spoke with reached out to the folks who had made this claim of fraud, explained exactly what had happened with this clerical error and what had happened and asked them to reach back out to the people they had told about this, to spread the truth instead. And I don't know if that ultimately worked, but they are making an effort to explain if there are discrepancies and to help protect individual voters if they have been put in any danger, because as we talked about at the beginning, people face real threats that can affect their safety and their quality of life, one is the subject of disinformation.

Paras: And Allison, in your reporting, what else did you see in terms of what election officials are doing to come combat this really multipronged sophisticated misinformation and disinformation effort? 

Allison: Well, they really do seem to be using every platform they can — social media, the local news outlets, press releases, media interviews. I talked to one administrator who said in 2020, she tried to take any media requests that came in, no matter the outlet — she did an interview for Japanese TV.

But they also need to put an emphasis among those outlets on what are trusted sources to say, come directly to the Secretary of State's office for information about elections, go to those trusted media organizations that are not conspiracy based, instead of just listening to misinformation, and disinformation on social media. These election administrators are also getting out there in the community to talk to people directly. The Rhode Island Secretary of State used to be a high school teacher, and so he's going into classrooms around the state to talk to students about elections and the right to vote. 

I also spoke with Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, and a particular town had a proposal to ban voting machines. This is a pretty common topic on the election conspiracy circuit. And so, she went to their town meeting and got into the really nitty gritty, boring stuff of how to run elections, of “this is how the machines are tested. This is how we ensure there are observers from both parties,” and just the details of a how election work that, if you don't work in elections, you don't have to know about on a day-to-day basis. And ultimately, once she explained all of that, this proposal was voted down. And those one on one, or town-level conversations do seem to be effective in a lot of cases. 

However, I think this was from an administrator in Hawaii, there is also this understanding of providing this information for the 99% of the public who are open to it and understanding that there may also be this 1% of true skeptics who are never going to believe the truth, because they're sort of too deep into these conspiracy theories.

Paras: How are the election workers you spoke with dealing with all of this? Personally, I imagine these threats are really difficult to deal with, and are folks sticking through this, or are we seeing the loss of institutional knowledge?

Allison: Yeah, so the folks I spoke with are largely at the state level, and they are sticking around. One person told me that if she wins a lottery, she'll move to the beach and sell ice cream. But, she's not going anywhere, that this work gets in your blood. And it is important to the people that do it. 

But there also has been this wave of retirements and resignations that's been reported to different degrees in different states, certainly, depending on the level of disinformation. And I think that sometimes states where the vote was close experience that differently than states where there was a larger difference in the 2020 vote count. But, some of these administrators are feeling the effects of threats and misinformation. Maybe they feel their integrity is being questioned, or they worry about their safety.

But, they're also up against a whole barrage of other things outside of misinformation. The technology of running elections is ever changing. A lot of states have passed new laws since 2020, either to make it easier to vote or to increase security or, in some cases, make it harder to vote. And, those changes are a lot to keep up with. Also, many of the administrators worked through the 2020 election, which not only had this disinformation but a global pandemic that changed so much about how elections were run that year. And that's a lot of work. 

But it also does matter to that institutional knowledge, like you mentioned. In North Carolina, they have 100 counties, each with their own county election director. And since 2019, they have had 53 changeovers in county directors, some counties have had more than one. And what that means is that going into 2024, more than a quarter of the county directors have never done a presidential election. Maybe they've done state or local ones, but the scale is different. This is a different beast. And the folks in Maine talked about the same thing, of asking a room of election administrators who had done this before, and just being shocked at the number of people who did not raise their hands.

Paras: Selling ice cream on the beach definitely sounds like a nice way to spend the lottery winnings. But, how do the folks you've spoken to feel about the importance of this work as we head into the next election? What are they saying about why they're doing this? 

Allison: I think in general, people are trying to stay positive. There's a commitment to the importance of elections, to the importance of voting and democracy, and they want to make people understand that elections is a profession, and that there's certainly a lot of knowledge that goes into that and into the systems that keep American elections free and fair.  

There's also optimism based on high turnout. 2020, despite the disruptions of the pandemic and of disinformation, had the highest national turnout in over 100 years. 2018 was the highest midterm I think in 100 years as well, and 2022 was just a little bit lower and higher than any election other than 2018 since the 1970s. They don't know what the challenge will be for 2024. In 2016, it was concerns about cyber-attacks from other countries. In 2020, we had COVID-19 and this barrage of disinformation, and election administrators don't necessarily know what they might face in 2024, even if they're ready to prepare for the things they've seen before. I think one administrator phrased it as “preparing for a coming storm.” But through all of that, the commitment is to ensure that everyone can vote — even the folks who have made threats, made these huge public records requests, or otherwise made this work harder on a day to day basis. 

Paras: This is also important. Thank you for this reporting and for joining the show, and for giving us a frontline view to the coming challenges in next year's election. Thanks again.  

Allison: Thank you.

Paras: This episode was hosted by me, Paras Shah. It was edited and produced by Tiffany Chang, Michelle Eigenheer, and Clara Apt. Our theme song is “The Parade” by Hey Pluto.

Special thanks to Allison Mollenkamp. You can read all of Just Security’s coverage of the 2024 election – including an introduction to our election protection coverage and Allison’s reporting on the challenges and opportunities facing election administrators – on our website. 

If you enjoyed this episode, please give us a five star rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.