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Index 09

External Interference in Voting

Storming State Capitols
March 2022

Overview:

One of the more interesting aspects of this compendium was locating sources to identify occurrences of external interference experienced by voters during the 2020 election across all 50 states and DC. Various tactics were used to misinform, confuse, and intimidate voters to influence their participation. Persistent public education campaigns will be necessary to counter these measures in 2022. There is a great need for voters to not only have a better understanding about their rights due to multiple changes made since the 2020 elections, but for state legislatures to follow the lead of those that have passed laws to promote more accessible, safe, and transparent elections.

Components include the perceived trustworthiness of mainstream media’s election coverage; disinformation and intimidation spread online and by telephone; threats and intimidation experienced at the polling sites; and measures states have taken to help mitigate these discouraging influences.

Observations:

There was an 80% spike in protests and demonstrations during the week of the 2020 general election over the prior week. During the same period, hundreds of protests occurred across the nation, and at least seventeen states reported riots. Meanwhile, election officials in twelve states received nearly 800 intimidating and/or threatening messages, including more than one hundred that met the threshold of potential prosecution. Approximately 800,000 swing state voters received misleading robocalls with messages to stay home on election day. Experts analyzing social media between January 2020 and September 2020 found a massive 3.1 million mentions of disinformation about voting by mail. Public opinion surveys showed that voters did not find the news media particularly trustful in covering the elections. Additionally, callers to the 1-866-OUR-VOTE legal hotline during the last week of the 2020 election reported concerns with intimidation both at the polls and online, as well as public safety, electioneering, poll worker misconduct, and police presence at the polls.

Although there are states that have passed laws in attempts to counter such interference, many more need to do so. Measures seeking to mitigate external influences include media literacy education requirements in public schools, weapon bans at polling sites, poll worker training mandates, prohibitions on obstructing entrances/hindering voter access, criminalization of voter intimidation and false election speech, and reduction of police presence at polling sites
(unless summoned on official business).

Overall findings:

Our findings show that in every state, voters reported experiencing instances of biased media coverage, disinformation, and/or intimidation connected to the 2020 elections. Only five states–Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, South Dakota, and Vermont–scored high confidence ratings. In these states, reports of disinformation or intimidation by voters were few or rare and their states have passed pro-voter legislation to prohibit or help counter such influences. Medium confidence levels were given to 31 states and the District of Columbia, while 14 states were rated with low confidence levels. These findings raise concerns about the influence of previous voting experiences on voters’ decisions to participate again. Voters who felt manipulated, unsafe, or deceived may not choose to participate in 2022.

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