Accurately reporting on election threats and interrupting the spread of anti-democratic lies

This explainer piece is for reporters covering elections. It offers valuable, actionable tips and provides context for what many communities will experience around claims of voter fraud.

Let’s get to it.

Get perspective on the landscape

Federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies are warning of a “heightened threat” of domestic violent extremism during the midterm elections, most likely driven by “lone offenders who leverage election-related issues to justify violence,” according to reporting from several news outlets. The FBI, Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center have issued similar warnings every few months since January 2021 after the January 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, often citing mis- dis- and mal-information (MDM) about democratic institutions as a motivating factor for violence.

Local journalists can help limit anti-democratic sentiment and politically-motivated violence in several ways.

  • Understand the context in which MDM about election security are generated at the local level as part of a national, politically-motivated strategy (keep reading — more below).
  • Avoid “both-sideism”– presenting an argument as having two equally valid sides, even though facts are overwhelmingly on one side. Politicians, local party leaders, activists and voters should not be granted automatic credibility based on their status for the opinions they espouse. Any statement should be fact-checked and appropriately contextualized, if included at all, in reporting.
  • Be clear with yourself and with your readers about why groups are making certain claims. Provide context for communication methods designed for persuasion and how they work. Check out these playlists and consider including the videos in articles to explain political actors’ rhetorical techniques.
  • Follow the “prebunking” reporting checklist at the end of this piece.

Zoom in on organized efforts

Many groups calling themselves “election integrity” activists contribute to the MDM that perpetuates distrust in the U.S.’s democratic institutions and sustains a higher threat environment for motivating individual actors toward violence, even as the groups themselves act nonviolently or within the technical limits of the law.

“Election integrity” is a long-standing dog whistle phrase for targeting voters of color with accusations of voter fraud. This is part of a political strategy shared by politicians, political parties, and “extended party networks,” or groups of party-affiliated activists that push political parties to change behavior. In the post-Reconstruction South, white Democrats used the “election integrity” strategy to motivate the white public to disallow Black men from voting. Today, Republicans and Republican-backed activist networks are using “election integrity” claims to target Democratic voters, with particular emphasis on discrediting Black and Hispanic voters, in an attempt to de-legitimize any election Democrats carry.

The purpose of “election integrity” claims are to create political justifications in the name of democratic security to limit access to the vote of political opponents. This is anti-democratic behavior.

As Republicans have shown over the last decade in state legislatures across the country, their party is willing to use disinformation that photo ID is a necessary deterrent against voter impersonation fraud to pass targeted voter ID laws that have disproportionate impact on Black would-be voters.

Since Donald Trump began making false claims well before the 2020 election targeting by-mail voting, Republicans across the country have passed and attempted to pass bills limiting access to by-mail voting, as well as other “election security” laws. In effect, these bills make it harder to access the vote, help perpetuate a narrative of democratic instability or active fraud, and disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color.

Knowing and accepting the fact that the now-dominant wing of the Republican party and powerful extended party networks are acting with anti-democratic intentions as a political strategy to gain and shore up political power is essential to accurate reporting and contextualizing local events.

Place the characters

Once basic facts and context is established in your reporting, accurately identifying local actors and their intentions is key. Any group that perpetuates MDM about democratic systems contributes to the possibility of voter intimidation and politically-motivated violence, but there are dozens of right-wing groups acting in different ways, and therefore posing different threats. It is very important to be specific when identifying players, organizational membership, and intent.

Here is one example, based on my reporting in North Carolina with my colleague Laura Lee. Cleta Mitchell, who was on Trump’s legal team as he attempted to overturn the 2020 election results, now works for the Conservative Partnership Institute and leads its Election Integrity Network.

That Network tested a strategy of “election observation” during the 2021 gubernatorial elections in Virginia. As of October of this year, the network has partner groups in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Jim Womack, a rural county GOP chairman, leads North Carolina’s group. He is following Election Integrity Network’s playbook, as are the organizations in the other states, he said. Their goal is to mobilize thousands of people to serve as poll observers and elections workers. While doing those jobs, they are instructed to be hyper-vigilant and suspicious, and to document any perceived incidents where the election is not being run smoothly or accurately.

Womack said they will use these observations to challenge certain “suspicious” voters trying to cast ballots, to protest elections (a legal term meaning to formally challenge how the election was run), to push for legislative changes, and potentially to provide local prosecutors with information about perceived voter-related crimes. This means that even if there is, in actuality, no systemic voter fraud, these “observers” are well prepared to manufacture a surfeit of semi-factual material that could then be used to cast doubt on the elections process, which in turn would enable bad actors to proceed with baseless claims designed to undermine democratic norms, and generate lawsuits.

If “election observers,” the groups that support them and political parties follow-through on any of these actions, reporting must contextualize the election protest, etc., with information about whomever is backing the claims. The strategy is different from that of violent groups or of explicitly race or religious supremacist groups, so calling it a “right-wing” or Republican effort is not sufficient.

Journalists interested in reporting on “election integrity” organizing in their states can take several reporting steps.

  1. Ask the local board of elections about incidents with poll observers during early voting or on Election Day.
  2. Ask local boards of elections to report any filed voter challenges or election protests (often not filed until Election Day or later).
  3. Call up the local election denier (whoever acts as the town crier for false information) and ask what their plans are. This could be the local GOP party chair, a failed candidate, or a retired grandmother with hyperactive social media accounts (all examples from NC). These folks are sometimes very talkative. See what their plans are, then check to see if they really do what they’re planning.
  4. Talk to the local law enforcement, including the local district attorney, about how they will respond to allegations of election fraud, and what the bar is for making legitimate claims (i.e. can a DA or sheriff open an investigation based on hearsay from “election integrity” activists).
  5. Talk to your local elected officials, from county commissioners to state and U.S. legislators, about their contact with “election integrity” activists. Keep an eye out for any bills that are introduced parroting claims of irregularities or fraud.
  6. Take note of any claims of election fraud tied to the fates of a particular candidate. If “election integrity” activists make a lot of noise before an election but not after a Republican wins, take note of the partisan motivation. Sometimes the election integrity activists will target heavily Republican areas as “safe” places to pursue claims of election fraud. Do not mistake this for nonpartisanship.
  7. Back this reporting up with records requests.

What journalists can do NOW

The best response to these efforts is “prebunking,” or preparing the public to recognize false information so they neither believe nor share it. See First Draft’s guide to writing “prebunking” stories and Jigsaw’s explainer videos.

There’s still time to publish simple stories explaining election administration because MDM gets the most play on Election Day and in the immediate aftermath.

Here are some basic questions to be sure to report on ASAP and to disseminate widely and often, ahead of time.

  1. When will we know the final results? Hint: it’s not on election night and it never, ever has been.
  2. Why do the counts come in like they do, where there seem to be big jumps between which party is getting the votes?
  3. How do election officials make sure the count is right? There are several types of “audits” or “checks” depending on the local jargon, not just the “tabulation audits” that have gotten the most attention since 2020. Ask your local election official.
  4. How do we know people aren’t double voting or otherwise cheating by using by-mail and early in-person voting? Actually explain the ways people get caught, the consequences for attempting voter fraud, and how difficult it would be to commit this kind of crime thousands of times without getting caught (because if it’s caught, there will be investigations, prosecutions, a new election ordered, and therefore all those crimes will have been committed for no good reason — just Google “NC District 9 2018”).
  5. In writing these kinds of procedural prebunking stories, there is no need to get quotes from anyone who is not an election official or well-established expert. In places with partisan election officials, it’s often better to talk to the non-elected, professional elections staff than the elected talking heads.

What to do after the election

Take a census. Are there large, organized “election integrity” groups in your area? Can you get the list of names for those groups? Can you get the incident reports from elections offices and cross reference the incidents to anti-democratic activists?

Follow charges, indictments, prosecutions and convictions on charges of election fraud. As we’ve seen across the country, charges and arrests are increasingly politically motivated (think Florida). Situate the context for these legal actions clearly with the political position of the decision-makers, the consequences of the allegedly illegal activity, and the consequences for the person arrested or charged.

Identify the biggest players in your area. 2022 is a prelude to 2024. Were there armed groups anywhere watching drop boxes? Were there coordinated efforts to submit dozens of nearly impossible requests for records in the middle of the election? Were there voter challenges or election protests? If so, who did these things, with support from whom? Keep an eye on how these groups coordinate and grow over the next two years, and who is organizing and funding them.

This piece is reported by Jordan Wilkie for Election SOSHe reports on election administration and technology, most recently for Carolina Public Press. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work can be found by following him on Twitter.

Additional resources for journalists, editors and anyone trying to help the public make sense of what’s happening in the USA around elections and democracy can be found at Election SOS.

Election SOS offers training & resources for journalists, connecting them to best practices, resources and support around election coverage.

Election SOS is managed by Hearken with the support of Trusting News, is fiscally sponsored by the American Press Institute, and is principally funded by The Democracy Fund and the Trusted Elections Fund.