House Subcommittee on Elections Should Consider Different Legislation to Combat Disinformation
The U.S. House Administration Subcommittee on Elections recently held a hearing on “How Disinformation Damages American Democracy.” The hearing explored how the impact and spread of Mis-, Dis- and Mal- information (MDM) has increased in recent years and threatens election integrity. Spreading false information causes confusion and skepticism, which leads citizens to distrust election procedures and question the validity of election outcomes.
Conspiracy theories follow almost every election. Whether it’s President Donald J. Trump’s claims about mail balloting fraud in the 2020 election, implications about what led to Stacey Abrams’ defeat in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, or allegations of millions of illegal votes and Russian interference in voting machines in the 2016 presidential race, conspiracy theories offer an alternative explanation for those who believe their candidate simply couldn’t be beat. Compounding the problem, one study recently found that such false information spreads faster than correct information on Twitter.
Some conspiracies become so pervasive that they can impact the certification of elections, as was the case in New Mexico earlier this year. In a recent election, Otero County commissioners refused to certify results because they believed Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the Dominion voting machines could not be trusted. The New Mexico Supreme Court ultimately had to intervene and order certification.
While the committee concurs that MDM must be addressed, the path to do so remains contentious. Democrats called for the passage of legislation like H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which contain provisions to stop the spread of MDM. Meanwhile, Republicans said these bills actually police speech in a way that infringes on free speech rights.
While it is true that steps must be taken to provide timely and accurate information from reliable sources to combat MDM, the proposed legislation is not the answer. Legislation should not threaten speech, and control over elections should be held in the hands of local, nonpartisan officials. Luckily, there are other potential solutions.
Simplifying the Voter Registration Process
One important step is simplifying the voter registration process and maintaining accurate voter rolls through updates at regular intervals. Accurate voter rolls ensure that ballots are only given to and cast by those who are registered and eligible to vote in a particular jurisdiction. This can help debunk any claims about casting multiple ballots in different jurisdictions.
Online registration portals and coordination between government agencies that update information after interacting with a voter can make it easier for voters to create and update their registration. Afterwards, regular list maintenance is crucial to ensuring that voters are registered in the right place and only those registered in the right place are casting ballots.
Creating Robust, Secure Voting Options
A second step would be to allow robust, secure voting options. Americans support both early voting and voter identification laws. Providing alternatives to in-person Election Day voting allows voters to participate in a way that best accommodates them and ensures their voice is heard. Providing free voter identification instills a sense of security in the process for everyone.
Reconsidering Candidate Selection
Greater trust in elections reduces the likelihood that voters will feel like they need to turn to conspiracy theories to explain what happened. Trust could be improved both on the micro level, by holding politicians accountable for what they say, but also at the macro level through fairer electoral systems.
For example, states can create more competitive elections through a transparent and responsive redistricting process, like the one used this year in Michigan. With a transparent process resulting in more competitive elections, voters are better able to hold elected officials accountable and less likely to believe the deck is somehow stacked against them. Alternatively, open primaries, ranked choice ballots and a Final-Five Voting system, similar to what has recently been adopted in Alaska, not only bring better legislative outcomes, but also give voters a stronger sense of participation in the process, which can increase satisfaction.
It is important to encourage candidates to accept the results of their elections graciously, win or lose. Questioning the legitimacy of elections, even without any supporting evidence, has been shown to decrease trust in elections, which encourages voters to look to conspiracies instead and makes them susceptible to MDM.
Promoting Civic Education
The quickest and most effective solution is engaging in civic education. Communication should come from trusted local election officials that provide voters with the information they need when they need it. When correct information is readily available from trusted sources, it undercuts MDM at its core.
The problems inherent in the spread of MDM are abundant, and it’s good that the subcommittee is seeking to address them. This is increasingly true as distrust among Americans remains high, threats to election workers around the country become more pervasive and the 2022 election season is already upon us. There are a number of steps that can be taken, but the current bills before Congress are not the answer.