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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Democracy is matter who wins.

Loyal readers will note, this newsletter normally comes out on Tuesdays but I was an election worker all day yesterday ensuring democracy was upheld - at least in a little hamlet near me (population just north of 700; 457 registered voters). That kept me away from my computer because we were damn busy! Usually I have some down time in such a small town but 62% of the registered voters in town came out yesterday to have their voices heard! That's exciting!

I've been following election disinformation this election season because I am an infodemiologist and it's my job but also because it is damn fascinating.

It turns out that democracy is in peril from both sides. If you listen to Republicans, if Democrats are elected, the world will end. If you listen to Democrats, if Republicans win, the world will end. How do you process that?

Let's think about some of the things we've already learned. What is it that people are seeking? People want a sense of community. They want to feel as though they belong somewhere and rallying around a political party and its ideologies is one way to feel a sense of belonging.

People are also fearful. There are any number of things to fear: health care, inflation, the economy, supply chain, eroding of civil rights, crime, safety, to name just a few. Add to that the narrative that there is rampant voter fraud and you have a recipe for chaos and an environment ready for disinformation and conspiracy theories.

How do you talk to people who espouse disinformation and conspiracy theories, particularly related to voting and elections? Let's unpack a couple of common pieces of disinformation.

First, recall the difference between disinformation and misinformation. Both involve the sharing of false and/or misleading information. The difference lies with intent. Those sharing disinformation are doing so with some ill intent and/or to profit from said disinformation. Those sharing misinformation are likely unknowingly doing so. They legitimately believe what they are sharing/saying.

I will be using the term "disinformation" in my article here because I will be talking about the information that is shared to clearly mislead, scaremonger, and to "profit." True, the people you are likely talking to about this disinformation are believing and sharing misinformation but I think it's important to note that the reason these rumors, conspiracy theories and lies started is to try to cast doubt on the democratic election process.

A common piece of disinformation I hear is that people may vote more than once because they may get more than one absentee ballot and may also then vote in person. This would be nearly impossible to pull off. In order to request an absentee ballot, you need to note why you need one (I just did this and was able to vote with an absentee ballot because I was working a poll not in my voting district and was not available during any early voting hours). Often people who request absentee ballots are those who are not in their voting jurisdiction on election day. A great example - those serving in the military. Would you deny any of those serving in our armed services their right to vote? You also have one name on file with your one signature. I supposed you could try to register as someone else but that would be difficult to do. You may show up at your polling place and vote in person even if you've requested and submitted an absentee ballot but if you do you will be told that you already voted. You may still be able to vote, but then the system will note that you have voted in person and will discard/destroy/disregard the absentee ballot you sent in. (Note: this may vary with county and state.)

Let's go back to registering as more than one person. Could you do that? I guess you could. I would think that if you are going to go through the trouble to be multiple people that you are going to complete more than one credit card application and go on a shopping spree rather than try to rig an election. Think about the number of people who would need to do this in order to "steal" an election. That's some pretty good community and relationship building. Also, you need an address. It might be suspect to any Board of Elections if 100 people are living in a small apartment, for example. Or if no abode exists at the address you use. (I tried to find information about using a P.O. box and could not readily find any. Even P.O. boxes have physical addresses tied to them.)

So how do you talk to someone who believes this? You could describe the process as I've outlined above. You could also ask them why they feel that way? "Why do you think people are able to vote more than once?" Truly listen to what they have to say. I can't stop you from thinking, "wow, this person is stupid," but please don't say it. Generally speaking, people aren't stupid. They have legitimate reasons for believing as they do and if you approach it from a place of "stupid," you lose an opportunity to learn, empathize and educate. (You might also consider that in some cases you may be wrong.) You may hear a response like, "I know a guy who saw someone vote in the morning and then come back in the afternoon." You could dig to get more details. "Where was this? Are you sure the person voted twice and didn't just show up to say hi to an election worker? Did anyone else notice this?" Those are just a couple of examples. Please don't act all high and mighty and belittle. That can be sensed by people and they don't like it.

Let's take another example. I have had people come into our polling place asking if our voting machine is hooked to the internet because there are plenty of people who've said that outside entities are hacking our systems and taking votes away and adding votes for different candidates.

Let me explain how voting machines work. In our county we use Dominion Voting Machines (yes, I have read all about the "problem" with Dominion and am pleased with the defamation law suit in progress and will be watching it closely). We have paper ballots that voters complete. Those ballots are then scanned into the machines which count the votes and give us a tally at the end of the election. Those paper ballots are then saved to be counted by hand, should that be required. Paper ballots are not altered in any way by the machine or by any election workers (they are marked in ink). Absentee ballots would be the same - marked in ink. Presumably, in states in which voting is done by absentee ballot only, those ballots would be run through a machine and/or hand-counted. Even if someone hacked into a machine you wouldn't be able to change votes. And if that did happen, you would have the unaltered paper ballots. (Our machine isn't hooked to the internet in any way. It's plugged into the wall. We don't have internet access where we are.) It would take some skills I am unaware of for the voting machine to change votes and also erase ink-marked dots and make new ink marks for other candidates.

If someone shares this piece of disinformation with you, approach them in the same way you would in my first scenario. Try to get at the heart of the problem and provide information that will be helpful for the individual you are speaking with.

What are some common threads in responding?

  • Know your audience. Who are you speaking with? What do you know about them? What motivates them? What are they fearful of? What community do they belong to or feel most comfortable in?

  • Know the truth. Do you have facts, studies, figures, other information? Is that what will appeal to your audience?

  • Do not jump to "stupid." People aren't generally stupid. There could be any number of reasons for believing what they believe. Try to get to that.

Of course, you may also just walk away from the argument. You are not going to get everyone to believe the truth. Remember that about 1% of the population lies on either side (right or left) of conspiracies like this and they are not easily persuaded. Save your energy to combat disinformation that is combatable.

Excuse me while I see if I can find a student to develop an app or something to change ink-marked ballots. I'll report back later.

(The above paragraph is not true....just in case you wondered. I use my powers for good only.)

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