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US midterms: How to verify information on Election Day

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Mail-in ballots are processed at the Salt Lake County election headquarters on November 7, 2022 in Salt Lake City, Utah./AFP
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Nov 08, 2022 - 06:45 AM

WASHINGTON — Premature declarations of victory and claims of fraud could inundate Americans’ social media feeds as they head to the polls on Tuesday, potentially casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election results.

A tsunami of misinformation has already circulated in the lead-up to the US midterms, in which Republicans hope to win back control of Congress and block President Joe Biden’s agenda.

People should expect to see more misleading claims as results pour in: on the integrity of voting machines, counting of absentee ballots and potential misconduct by poll workers, experts say.

On his social media platform Truth Social, former president Donald Trump on November 1 questioned the validity of absentee ballots in Pennsylvania, a state that could determine which political party wins most seats in the Senate. Rumors on Facebook and other websites have spread confusion about voting in other states, including Connecticut and Colorado.

Such falsehoods — adapted from baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential contest — may accelerate on and after Election Day.

“We are most likely to see election misinformation and conspiracy theories that take advantage of the general lack of understanding about the voting and vote counting process to promote the idea of election fraud,” said Cindy Otis, a disinformation expert and author.

To avoid falling for spin, here are some tips for verifying online election information.

Consult local officials 

Misinformation that dissuades people from voting, including claims that absentee ballots are not counted, could emerge on November 8, according to the nonpartisan Election Integrity Partnership. The best way to receive factual information is to follow local authorities online, experts say.

“Make sure you are getting information about polling stations or voting hours from verified election accounts, such as your county or state governments,” Otis said.

The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), as well as many state and county election departments, have webpages for refuting rumors. When in doubt, do not share information that cannot be verified with a Google search.

“Take your time in sharing personal claims from social media accounts you do not know that have not been verified by more authoritative sources of information,” Otis said.

Beware of visuals 

Footage of election workers supposedly committing fraud reached massive audiences following the 2020 presidential election. With heightened scrutiny at polls in states such as Arizona, misleading visuals may circulate again.

“We’ll likely see lots of photos and videos of poll workers performing ordinary aspects of their jobs presented as suspicious or, worse, ‘proof’ of fraud,” said Peter Adams, senior vice president of research and design at the News Literacy Project. “Remember: Election workers are often required to move, write on, transcribe and discard ballots as part of their jobs.”

Studies indicate voter fraud is rare. Of the more than 65 million absentee ballots cast in 2020, there have been only a handful of criminal fraud convictions. Courts rejected dozens of claims from Trump and his allies that the presidential election was rigged.

“Every state has a system of checks and balances in place to ensure their voter rolls are up to date and that only qualified, registered voters can actually cast a (single) ballot,” Adams said.

Be patient 

In 2020, an unprecedented number of ballots cast by mail due to the pandemic contributed to delays in counting, opening the door for Trump to prematurely declare victory. Surveys indicate fewer Americans plan to vote by mail this year, but it still may take days to get results.

“Regardless of the form of ballot, no results are official on election night,” Rick Hasen, a professor and election law expert at the University of California-Los Angeles, told AFP. “It is often weeks after Election Day before results are official.”

Such delays are not evidence of malfeasance. In fact, experts say they indicate the system is working properly, as some close races could result in recounts.

“Just as it would be imprudent to declare a winner of a match at half-time, it’s inaccurate to have expectations that we would know the final results of a narrow race before all the ballots are counted,” said David J. Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

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