Manufacturing the false voter fraud narrative

The outline of a Trump strategy to sow distrust in the result is emerging

Good evening. Voting in the 2020 presidential election ends in 11 days.

A Post-Election Threat Scenario

We are in the home stretch. Last night’s debate did little to change things. Over 50 million Americans have already voted- more than the entire early-vote total in 2016. The Trump+Bannon+Giuliani attempt at manufacturing an October Surprise around a fringe conspiracy theory on Hunter Biden has failed, even as folks are analyzing the video of what Rudy Giuliani did in that hotel room with Borat like it’s the Zapruder film. Barring a major surprise or a catastrophe (who knows what the lunatics will do), the trajectory of this race seems set.

And that trajectory does not look good for Donald J. Trump.

Like many of you, I’m concerned that- no matter the actual outcome of the vote- Donald will attempt to cash in on his investment in the bogus voter fraud narrative he’s been pushing for months. And this week, I think we got another hint at just how that might play out, tactically, from Hogan Gidley, the press secretary for the Trump campaign.

Yesterday, Gidley appeared on MSNBC with Hallie Jackson. Gidley went full throttle on peddling the false voter fraud narrative, and Jackson shut him down:

Folks are right to praise Jackson’s handling of the interview as a good example of what to do with disinformation from Trump officials. But if you listen closely to what Gidley is saying, it is revealing. When Jackson disputes the idea there is voter fraud, Gidley says, “You can’t deny what you’ve seen on television in all of these local markets, where people are finding ballots of trash cans, people are finding ballots in ditches and in the back of trucks….” When Jackson pushes back, citing the FBI Director's statement that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, he says “Your local markets and all types of NBC affiliates are reporting on this in all types of areas across this country, this is rampant, everyone sees that.”

It is Gidley's repeated use of the word "local markets" that caught my attention. It sounds like he is giving us a peek into a communications strategy to produce evidence from the bottom up that would support the Trump narrative of voter fraud. This is one of the six key disinfo threats I wrote about recently for Just Security. We know the Trump team is building an army of "observers" for election day. Most of the reporting has been focused on whether they will intimidate voters at the polls. But a recent report from Reuters confirms the "Army for Trump" is being trained to capture photos and videos and to produce "evidence" of voter fraud:

Across key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin, Republican poll watchers will be searching for irregularities, especially with regard to mail-in ballots whose use is surging amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to more than 20 officials involved in the effort. They declined to say how many volunteers have signed up so far; the campaign earlier this year said its goal was to recruit 50,000 monitors nationwide.

The mission, the officials said, is to capture photos and videos Republicans can use to support so-far unfounded claims that mail voting is riddled with chicanery, and to help their case if legal disputes erupt over the results of the Nov. 3 contest between Republican incumbent Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden.

The Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of research entities focused on supporting real-time information exchange between the research community, election officials, government agencies, civil society organizations, and social media platforms, has chronicled how this type of bogus "evidence" can get laundered into media coverage to support this narrative, such as this example in Sonoma that sounds a lot like one of the examples Gidley references.

What I hear in Gidley's deflection & false assertions is a possible strategy- he is seeding the idea the picture will emerge from the bottom up- produced by the Army for Trump, brandishing cell phones across the land to film every janitor taking out the trash at a poll site. Will it work? It takes time to debunk these claims. The Sonoma incident is a good example- it had already made its way from a Facebook post by a right-wing operative and into the media before it was dismissed. It took four days.

Time will be a crucial commodity in the post-election period. 72 hours of chasing down every purported irregularity while tensions mount is a dangerous proposition. How will these photos & videos be tagged or not by the platforms? And how many will see an eventual fact check? While MSNBC’s Jackson was successful at stopping Gidley from spouting lies, I do not think the system is set up to quash a coordinated campaign from the bottom up. In fact, it's quite the opposite. If there are hundreds of such claims or more, how much damage is done?

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, recently made the compelling case that "the big national news teams need threat modeling teams" to defend against disinformation and dangerous attacks on our democratic systems. Certainly, they do. But what if the real threat is at the affiliate level, the local level? Gidley may have just tipped the Trump campaign's hand.

So what can you do? Like I said, the hour is late. We’ll have to rely on the systems we have in place now and hope they work. As an individual, you can prepare yourself with resources like these from First Draft News. And if you want to go deep, here is an hour-long panel discussion on countering election disinformation on social media after the polls close featuring American Interregnum collaborator Melissa Ryan, First Draft’s Ifeoma Ozoma, and Stanford Cyber Policy Center’s Kip Wainscott, moderated by Adam Conner of the Center for American Progress:

(To end this on a more positive note, Twitter briefly suspended Gidley yesterday for sharing unfounded claims of voter fraud. Reason for hope!)

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Driving the Conversation

The closer we get to the election, the more the picture comes into focus. Three months ago, POLITICO Magazine surveyed experts about what could go wrong on Election Day itself—from voter suppression to sinister “poll-watchers” to complete voting chaos—and as the day approaches we asked more than a dozen election, constitutional and national security experts about the concrete problems they’re planning for once the polls close.

Of every election I have covered, this is the one where electoral losers seem least likely to automatically respect the results of the count. I am not saying crisis is inevitable. The likeliest outcome, judging from the polls, is that Biden wins by an indisputable margin and that outcome is respected. But the possibility of crisis is real, and if we have learned anything in recent years, it is to cease pretending that unlikely is a synonym for impossible. The stakes are so high because the system itself is at stake — both sides are losing faith in the electoral system, and they doubt they can win power in the future if they lose many more elections now. And perhaps they are right.

Every Republican effort to restrict the franchise, no matter how ephemeral its justification, is met by the Court’s conservatives with wilting modesty, while every effort to protect voting rights is struck down as tyrannical state overreach. The pattern holds in the lower courts; one recent study found that “Republican appointees interpreted the law in a way that impeded ballot access 80 percent of the time, versus 37 percent for Democratic ones.” The reason for this is simple: Republican-appointed judges, like Republican voters, believe that voter fraud is real and racism is a myth, when in fact the reverse is true.

“People are laying the groundwork to consolidate that Trump base,” said Amanda Carpenter, a Republican Trump critic and former advisor to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another would-be successor. “Even with a big loss, he will still be the kingmaker of the Republican Party in many senses.”

Almost 21,000 Election Day polling places have been eliminated heading into the 2020 U.S. election, a drastic dip in voting locations driven by a heavy shift to mail voting, coronavirus-related consolidations, cost-cutting measures, and voter suppression.

We’ve spent so many months worrying about a disastrous Election Day — due to President Trump’s corrupt designs or other factors such as mail backlogs — that it’s hard to contemplate the possibility that it might come off more smoothly than we expect. But that more hopeful outcome got a bit more plausible on Friday, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling that mail ballots can’t be rejected due to a failure to meet signature matching requirements.

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American Interregnum is a pop-up newsletter covering the issues and ideas that will define the Presidential transition period from Nov. 3, 2020, through — we hope — Jan. 21, 2021. It is written and edited by Justin HendrixGreg Greene, and Melissa Ryan. Have questions or comments? We love your feedback. Reply directly to this email. We read all responses and respond to most.