Information Gaps and Misinformation in the 2022 Elections –

The prob­lem of elec­tion misin­form­a­tion is vast. Part of the prob­lem occurs when there is high demand for inform­a­tion about a topic, but the supply of accur­ate and reli­able inform­a­tion is inad­equate to meet that demand. The result­ing inform­a­tion gap creates oppor­tun­it­ies for misin­form­a­tion to emerge and spread.

One major elec­tion inform­a­tion gap developed in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic drove many states to expand access to voting by mail.
Inad­equate public know­ledge about the process left room for disin­form­a­tion mongers to spread false claims that mail voting would lead to wide­spread fraud. Elec­tion offi­cials — managing unpre­ced­en­ted chal­lenges to ensure what federal author­it­ies ulti­mately called “the most secure elec­tion in Amer­ican history”
 — could not fill inform­a­tion gaps with accur­ate inform­a­tion in time. As is now well known, no less than former Pres­id­ent Trump promoted these false claims, among others, to deny the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion results and provoke the Janu­ary 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In 2022, false narrat­ives about a stolen 2020 elec­tion persist, even as an unpre­ced­en­ted spate of restrict­ive voting law changes across the coun­try has created fresh inform­a­tion gaps and, thus, fresh oppor­tun­it­ies for misin­form­a­tion. Since 2020, at least 18 states have shrunk voting access, often in ways that dramat­ic­ally alter proced­ures voters might remem­ber from the past.
Mean­while, lies and vitriol about the 2020 elec­tion have affected percep­tions of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion in ways that complic­ate work to defend against misin­form­a­tion.

This paper iden­ti­fies some of the most signi­fic­ant inform­a­tion gaps around elec­tions in 2022 and new devel­op­ments in elec­tions over­sight that will make it harder to guard against misin­form­a­tion. Ulti­mately, it recom­mends strategies that elec­tion offi­cials, journ­al­ists, social media compan­ies, civic groups, and indi­vidu­als can and should use to prevent misin­form­a­tion from filling gaps in public know­ledge. Lessons from other subjects, such as Covid-19 vaccine ingredi­ents and tech­no­lo­gies,
show how timely responses and proact­ive “preb­unk­ing” with accur­ate inform­a­tion help to mitig­ate misin­form­a­tion.

The consequences of ignor­ing the misin­form­a­tion risk posed by these inform­a­tion gaps could be severe. Already, voter trust in elec­tions has plunged since 2020.
Threats to elec­tion offi­cials have become a seri­ous public safety prob­lem, with 60 percent of elec­tion offi­cials report­ing in a recent Bren­nan Center survey concerns that threats, harass­ment, and intim­id­a­tion will thin their ranks.
After major changes to voting proced­ures since 2020, at least one state — Texas — has already seen remark­able increases in mail ballot rejec­tions, and several other states have newly disen­fran­chised some minor­ity voters.

Key find­ings

  • Since the begin­ning of 2021, many states have enacted an unpre­ced­en­ted wave of laws that restrict voting access. At least 18 states, includ­ing congres­sional battle­grounds, passed 34 restrict­ive laws that could create signi­fic­ant inform­a­tion gaps for voters and result in misin­form­a­tion.
    Among them are laws that make it harder to vote by mail, shrink drop box numbers, impose draconian voter ID require­ments, punish elec­tion work­ers for routine conduct, empower partisan poll watch­ers, and elim­in­ate Elec­tion Day voter regis­tra­tion. Several states enacted expans­ive laws, which could also cause confu­sion and thus risk misin­form­a­tion.
    But restrict­ive changes carry the added risk that voters will mistakenly believe they address real prob­lems of elec­tion integ­rity, confirm­ing or creat­ing false assump­tions about wide­spread voter fraud, for instance, and feed­ing a disin­form­a­tion feed­back loop around the Big Lie.
    And many new restric­tions impose complex new require­ments, which bad actors or confused citizens could misstate in ways that deter voters.
    Some new laws may also increase voter confu­sion and misin­form­a­tion by redu­cing elec­tion staff, delay­ing results, embolden­ing partisan poll watch­ers — thou­sands of whom conser­vat­ive organ­iz­a­tions have recruited in an unpre­ced­en­ted push to prepare to chal­lenge elec­tion results
     — or creat­ing other unusual condi­tions.
  • New citizens and new voters — who are dispro­por­tion­ately Latino — face special risks in encoun­ter­ing misin­form­a­tion stem­ming from inform­a­tion gaps. Inform­a­tion gaps can specially affect new voters and newly natur­al­ized citizens because they lack famili­ar­ity with U.S. voting proced­ures. Newly registered voters are most likely to be Latino.
    At the same time, elec­tion misin­form­a­tion and disin­form­a­tion target­ing Span­ish-speak­ing and Latino communit­ies is partic­u­larly viru­lent.
    These new voters may face greater diffi­culties in recog­niz­ing misin­form­a­tion result­ing from inform­a­tion gaps around recent voting law changes.
  • Elec­tion deni­al­ism in 2022 makes it harder to defend against misin­form­a­tion result­ing from inform­a­tion gaps. Base­less deni­als of the 2020 elec­tion results often include attacks on the elec­tion process itself, making the task of provid­ing voters accur­ate inform­a­tion more urgent but also more chal­len­ging. Threats and harass­ment have driven strik­ing numbers of elec­tion offi­cials from their posts since 2020. A recent Bren­nan Center poll found one in five local elec­tion offi­cials say they are likely to resign before the 2024 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.
    These depar­tures would drain admin­is­trat­ive expert­ise from the field.
    Mean­while, elec­tion deni­al­ism has infec­ted races for offices with power over elec­tions, with dozens of candid­ates across at least 18 states embra­cing false claims of a stolen 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.
    Their messages encour­age people to make sinis­ter assump­tions about unfa­mil­iar voting proced­ures.
  • Texas and Los Angeles County, Cali­for­nia, provide contrast­ing examples of how to address the signi­fic­ant inform­a­tion gaps facing voters. Texas voters received too little accur­ate inform­a­tion on major changes to mail voting ahead of the state’s 2022 primary elec­tion, after a new law constrained elec­tion offi­cials’ abil­ity to conduct public outreach. In the primary, mail ballot rejec­tion rates in Texas skyrock­eted compared to past years, up more than 1,100 percent from the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.
    By contrast, ahead of Cali­for­ni­a’s proced­ur­ally unusual 2021 gubernat­orial recall elec­tion, Los Angeles elec­tion offi­cials proact­ively educated voters on topics of confu­sion and prepared to prevent and mitig­ate misin­form­a­tion in real time.
    The elec­tion unfol­ded with remark­ably little contro­versy.

Key recom­mend­a­tions

Recom­mend­a­tions for elec­tion offi­cials

  • Plan well-timed voter educa­tion campaigns that include resources such as Frequently Asked Ques­tions pages and video tutori­als.
  • Provide educa­tional resources in voters’ preferred languages.
  • Consider publish­ing rumor control pages to “preb­unk” misin­form­a­tion.
  • Build and main­tain a network of part­ners and messen­gers — includ­ing secret­ar­ies of state, community groups, candid­ates of all affil­i­ations, busi­ness groups, and the media — to amplify accur­ate elec­tion inform­a­tion.
  • Where languages other than English are common, elec­tion offi­cials should seek part­ner­ships with messen­gers who can reach such voters and have their trust.

Recom­mend­a­tions for community-based organ­iz­a­tions

  • Develop contacts among elec­tion offi­cials and nonpar­tisan voting experts.
  • Provide accur­ate elec­tion inform­a­tion and tools to identify misin­form­a­tion to community constitu­en­cies in preferred languages and formats.
  • Develop part­ner­ships with trus­ted messen­gers to ensure community educa­tion efforts travel further.

Recom­mend­a­tions for journ­al­ists

  • Cultiv­ate author­it­at­ive sources on elec­tions, includ­ing elec­tion offi­cials.
  • Report pre-elec­tion stor­ies on confus­ing or new topics.
  • Provide accur­ate context and perspect­ive in cover­ing common­place glitches or delays, consult­ing with nonpar­tisan experts where needed to help prevent misin­form­a­tion.

Recom­mend­a­tions for inter­net and social media compan­ies

  • Publish and amplify accur­ate, author­it­at­ive elec­tion inform­a­tion.
  • Publish clear and trans­par­ent policies to minim­ize elec­tion misin­form­a­tion.
  • Create infra­struc­ture to impede elec­tion misin­form­a­tion, such as effect­ive educa­tion tools and algorithmic inter­ven­tions that slow the spread of misin­form­a­tion.
  • Defend elec­tion offi­cial websites and accounts against hack­ing and inter­fer­ence.

Recom­mend­a­tions for the public

  • Make a plan to vote that accounts for recent changes in voting proced­ures.
  • Learn how to recog­nize online misin­form­a­tion and build news liter­acy.
  • Seek out context for troub­ling elec­tion-related claims.
  • Share accur­ate voting inform­a­tion with social, civic, and faith networks.

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