Voter Intimidation, Disinformation, and Conspiracy Theories: Defending Democracy During the 2022 Midterm Election
By Western States Center
In the 2022 midterms, nearly 300 candidates who denied or questioned the 2020 election results are running for office. Instead of receding after the January 6, 2021 insurrection, the threats to democracy from disinformation, authoritarianism, and the organized efforts of white nationalist and paramilitary groups have only grown. This year, the potential for violence or intimidation at ballot drop boxes is particularly concerning. It is imperative that we manage these attempts at disruption to keep our communities and our democracy safe.
This resource guide from Western States Center is for anyone who supports democracy, rejects bigotry, and believes that every eligible voter should be able to vote safely and without intimidation. It covers some of the most prominent threats from bigoted and anti-democracy groups, makes projections for what we may expect in the coming weeks, and provides suggestions and resources for individuals and organizations to take action.
What You Need to Know
Over the last two years, influential figures in anti-democracy movements have been building power by casting doubt on the 2020 election results. The ad-hoc “Stop the Steal” coalition that first came together in 2020 is now formalized. We are in a new era of heightened coordination around election disinformation, voter intimidation and the targeting of elections administration.
An important driver of this anti-democracy coalition is True the Vote (TTV), a group that has used false and dangerous claims to cast doubt on our free and fair electoral processes since 2009. TTV’s latest false conspiracy theory is that individuals brought falsified ballots to dropboxes in order to manipulate the 2020 election results. Election-related conspiracy theories like this help anti-democracy groups build political power, sow distrust in democratic institutions, and lay the groundwork for contesting the election and mobilizing people to engage in voter intimidation. This anti-democracy coalition has also increased its institutional power, and now includes some county sheriffs. Sheriffs recruited through the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association falsely claim to have the power to override state and federal law and to intercede directly in electoral processes. Protect America Now, another sheriffs’ group which is best-known for working with anti-immigrant groups, has similarly gotten involved.
Perhaps the most concerning new threat in 2022 is the concrete planning from anti-democracy groups to 1) install their supporters in formal election observer structures in many states with the explicit goal of undermining the election, and 2) organize supporters to monitor ballot drop boxes on a much larger scale. Anti-democracy organizers are referring to this monitoring as “tailgating,” and some have publicly claimed to have groups of people ready to monitor ballot drop boxes in shifts in 18 states.
What We Might Expect
Increased potential of voter intimidation
While the 2020 election had isolated incidents of voter intimidation, in the two years since, anti-democracy groups have worked to normalize voter intimidation and recruit large numbers of people through disinformation. This is only the second election since the expiration of a 40-year-old consent decree preventing partisan poll-watching. Republicans have openly organized to expand poll-watching. This will likely involve anti-democracy activists “tailgating” in shifts around drop-boxes, and then filming or confronting voters who they believe are vulnerable to intimidation.
Escalating intimidation against election workers
Election officials, who have faced many threats since 2020, are warning about continued targeting by anti-democracy groups. This raises the possibility of contentious protests during vote counting, as well as digital attacks and doxxing against election workers.
Unpredictable paramilitary mobilizations driven by misinformation
Since 2020, monitoring has shown that many paramilitary groups mobilize in response to rapidly spreading rumors on social media. This has made it especially hard to predict where and why they may show up. While data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project shows that paramilitary activity peaked in 2020, ACLED has also recorded rising anti-LGBTQ+ activity from these groups. This is a warning sign that such groups may be ready to mobilize in response to misinformation about elections.
Potential manipulation of electoral processes from within
In some locations, people who have publicly doubted or denied the 2020 election results are now in official roles, making key decisions on elections administration, ballot counting, and election certification. Especially where results are close, we may see a renewed effort at procedural gambits like lawsuits, refusal to certify valid elections, and other manipulations in an effort to delegitimize electoral results.
Candidates may not concede in the event of a loss
Former President Trump is reportedly laying the groundwork to challenge midterm election results in multiple swing states, advocating the use of cynical lawsuits to subvert democracy through the courts. Some candidates, like Arizona governorship candidate Kari Lake, have already signaled that they may not be willing to concede. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s campaign is paying a law firm — that was associated with the 2020 scheme to reverse the election — for “recount consulting.”
High alert for post-election violence in multiple election scenarios
Due to a high volume of vote-by-mail ballots, it is likely that we will not learn all election results on Nov. 8th. This may create a window of time for anti-democracy groups to act out, especially if candidates fail to concede or claim their election was rigged. Polling places where votes are being counted could be targets. This raises the possibility of an uncertain post-election period in which multiple extremist factions could attempt to exploit and heighten the chaotic situation to interfere with the count of every American vote.
What Can We Do?
Document and report voter intimidation.
To document, capture links and/or screenshots of activity you see online or videos and photos of activity you witness in person, if safely possible.
To report voter intimidation:
- Contact NAACP Legal Defense Fund through this form;
- Use the nationwide, nonpartisan voter protection hotlines from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law:
Asian Languages/English: 888-API-VOTE
- Voters with disabilities who face voter intimidation and/or accessibility problems can use resources from The Arc:
Call The Arc’s hotline at 866–687–8683
Use this form for online reporting
- The ACLU advises reporting incidents to your local elections office;
- If it’s in the Pacific Northwest or Mountain West, and involves bigoted or anti-democracy groups, you can also give Western States Center a heads up at email@example.com.
Work to prioritize a free and fair election.
As organizers and activists, we recognize the importance of aligning civil society and local government for election protection and community safety. In the last weeks of the election, we’re working to assist our community partners in the following constructive ways:
- We must lead with statements of our values. Speaking clearly and collectively about our values is important to set community expectations, as in this past Oregon example.
Paramilitary and anti-democracy activity poses a challenge to our values of inclusive democracy. We won’t be intimidated by groups that use threats, intimidation, and even violence to chill democratic practice, threaten community safety, and undermine civil society.
We believe in a country that includes everyone, and protects the right of every person to live, love, work, and worship free from fear and bigotry.
We value accountable democratic practice, and commit to working together to defend democracy and protect our democratic institutions.
We value human rights, human dignity, and human life, and those values are more important than our ideology.
- Organize to ask for proactive statements condemning voter intimidation and political violence from law enforcement, prosecutors, mayors, governors, and other local leaders. Leaders should speak forcefully about values of democracy and inclusion, provide clarity around the process of reporting voter intimidation and incidents of violence (including for voters who may not be comfortable calling 911), and commit to using the power of their offices to counter these threats. For example, we were glad to see this press conference in Philadelphia in 2020, and this recent article about plans for election protection in Maricopa County, making it very clear that election protection is the priority and voter intimidation will not be tolerated.
- Work toward alignment among local government leaders and civil society. Unity among government and community on issues of voter intimidation and political violence can significantly reduce anti-democracy activity. It is not necessary to reach full agreement on every issue in order to clearly stand up for election protection, insist that election results must be respected, and denounce voter intimidation. Community-based organizations should also consider how they can send messages of support to elections administrators and elected officials who make proactive statements.
- Prepare your base for safety measures around voting as part of GOTV efforts. Reach out to ensure everyone knows the rules about behavior at polling places, and where to report vigilante or paramilitary activity and voter intimidation as listed in our Resources section below. You may want to consider organizing March to the Polls events, ballot parties or a buddy system for safety.
- Plan ahead for a response to political violence. Strengthen relationships among community groups, faith communities, business leaders, and elected officials so that if political violence occurs, it is possible to draw on those relationships for a more unified response that prioritizes de-escalation, safety, and defending democracy.
- The Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection has fact sheets on key laws preventing voter intimidation and dealing with unlawful militias for each state, as well as a new resource discussing “Constitutional Sheriffs” and Elections to debunk the idea that sheriffs have the power to intervene in elections.
- Information Gaps and Misinformation in the 2022 Elections, Brennan Center for Justice
- Midterms 2022: The Poll Observer Landscape, States United Democracy Center
- A Bid For Power: Mapping the Electoral Far-Right in the Midterm Elections, Political Research Associates
- Strengthening Local Government Against Bigoted and Anti-Democracy Movements, Western States Center
- Violence Prevention & De-escalation Resources for State & Local Officials, 2021, Bridging Divides Initiative and partners
- Hate in Elections: How Racism and Bigotry Threaten Election Integrity in the United States, 2020, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
- Building U.S. Resilience to Political Violence: A Globally Informed Framework for Analysis and Action, 2019, Over Zero
ONE FINAL THING…
Take a deep breath, and remember: What we are seeing is the backlash against our enormous victories. It is a testament to how much change we have already made, and how much more we have the power to create. If you are feeling anxious, revisit stories and songs that give you hope. Some of our favorites:
- Our Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab cohort’s Spotify playlist
- Something is Happening Here: The Emergence of a Movement, Eric K. Ward
- We also love Joy to the Polls and their awesome Instagram page!