“‘A Perpetual Motion Machine’: How Disinformation Drives Voting Laws”


The bills demonstrate how disinformation can take on a life of its own, forming a feedback loop that shapes policy for years to come. When promoted with sufficient intensity, falsehoods — whether about election security or the coronavirus or other topics — can shape voters’ attitudes toward policies, and lawmakers can cite those attitudes as the basis for major changes.

The embrace of the falsehoods also showcases the continuing power of Mr. Trump inside the Republican Party, which has widely adopted and weaponized his election claims. Many Republicans, eager to gain his support, have raced to champion the new voting laws. Those who have stood up to his falsehoods have paid the price. Representative Liz Cheney was ousted from her House leadership post on Wednesday after repudiating what she called the “big lie.”

Lawmakers in at least 33 states have cited low public confidence in election integrity in their public comments as a justification for bills to restrict voting, according to a tally by The New York Times. In several states — including Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Iowa — the bills have already been signed into law, and legislation in Texas is very close to passage.

Voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States, and officials in every state and at the federal level affirmed that the 2020 election was secure.

“It’s like a perpetual motion machine — you create the fear of fraud out of vapors and then cut down on people’s votes because of the fog you’ve created,” said Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “Politicians, for partisan purposes, lied to supporters about widespread fraud. The supporters believe the lies, and then that belief creates this rationale for the politicians to say, ‘Well, I know it’s not really true, but look how worried everybody is.’”

Calls to change election laws because of public perceptions are not new: Reports in 20012005 and 2008, for example, warned of the potential repercussions of voter distrust. In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law based partly on the argument that it would increase confidence in the state’s elections. And confidence tends to fall at least somewhat after every election among voters in the losing party, according to Charles Stewart III, a director of the Election Data and Science Lab at M.I.T.

But there are some key differences this year, voting rights and disinformation experts say. First, the scale of the legislative efforts — as measured both by the number of bills introduced and the extent of the restrictions they propose — is greater than in past election cycles. Second, the falling confidence in the electoral system is directly traceable to a disinformation campaign. And the drop in confidence among Republicans is far steeper than anything seen in past cycles.

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