David Levine: “Countering the Distortion of Election Administrator Errors”

The following is a guest post from David Levine:

On September 1, Harris County, Texas’ two-year-old elections department was eliminated after the Texas Legislature passed legislation earlier this year abolishing it and the State Supreme Court refused to stop the legislation from taking effect. This effort was fueled in large part by unsupported allegations that Harris County mishaps during the November 2022 general election – such as problems with voting machines, paper ballot shortages and long waiting times – impacted certain local contest results. Harris County, the nation’s third largest, is now in the unenviable position of reverting back to splitting its election duties between the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector — a traditional model for administering elections in Texas that many counties have moved away from in recent years out of a desire to have a nonpartisan elections official helping ensure elections are conducted impartially – while preparing for local elections in November and a presidential election in 2024.

Those who think that what transpired in Harris County could not happen elsewhere should think again. In July, Krysia Sikora and I published a report that found that administrative mistakes have been used to cast doubt on U.S. elections across the country. Examining mistakes made in Harris County’s November 2022 election, as well as recent elections in Antrim County, Michigan and Maricopa County, Arizona, we found that administrator errors are not simply being scrutinized to improve the quality of elections; they are often being distorted to try and undermine the integrity of electoral processes.

In Antrim County, election officials initially misreported – and quickly corrected  –  unofficial 2020 election results by up to several thousand votes that showed a big victory for Joe Biden in an historically Republican area. Although the county and its partners took numerous steps to resolve the mistake, including a manual count of all votes cast for president, the discrepancy triggered an avalanche of lawsuits and conspiracies baselessly alleging that the county’s voting machine vendor had “rigged” the voting machines. The error and the response to it gained national attention and contributed to former President’ Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

In Maricopa County, roughly 60 vote centers reported on the morning of the 2022 midterm elections that their voting machines were having issues counting ballots, which in some cases led to lines of close to two hours. In response to these problems, Maricopa County officials quickly and correctly encouraged voters to either deposit ballots into a secure ballot box so they could be subsequently counted at Maricopa County’s central counting facility, or visit nearby voting centers with shorter wait times to cast their ballots.  Unfortunately, some voters, perhaps at the urging of influential right-wing personalities, chose to ignore this guidance and instead waited in line.  Even after the reasons for the voting machine problems were identified in subsequent investigations and corrected – it turned out that the toner on some ballots printed on site was not dark enough for the vote-counting machines to read – some losing Arizona candidates continue to maintain there was election malfeasance, targeting Maricopa election officials. To cite just one example, Kari Lake, Arizona’s 2022 Republican nominee for governor called for Maricopa County’s election officials to be “locked up” after she lost and repeatedly sought to overturn the election results. While her efforts were  not successful in the short term, neither were they entirely in vain.

Election officials and their partners are not defenseless in the face of these kinds of threats. Our report provides suggestions, such as conducting tabletop exercises for different threat scenarios and developing crisis communication plans, to reduce the likelihood of election mistakes and mitigate their impact. We also suggest nonpartisan election observation, as was done in Fulton County, Georgia for the November 2022 midterms, to help ensure any mistakes are properly contextualized. 

Notwithstanding such efforts, in an age defined by polarization and election denialism, where the integrity of the information environment is far from certain and experienced election officials continue to leave in droves, the weaponization of election mistakes is unlikely to disappear, or even dissipate, before 2024. It is imperative that election officials and their partners confront this head on to ensure that legitimate election results continue to be affirmed, not overturned.

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