The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden officials are undermining Russian disinformation in Ukraine. Democrats should do the same to GOP lies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan 10. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The Biden administration revealed Friday that Russia might use a “false flag” operation as pretext for further invasion into Ukraine. The effort to disarm deception contains lessons for the Democratic Party here at home.

The Post reported last week that Russia will likely stage a phony “attack on Russian-backed separatists or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine” that “could serve as an excuse to intervene,” according to warnings from national security officials. Russian officials have advanced baseless accusations that Ukraine is guilty of “genocide” and aggression toward Russia, preposterous claims from the country that is amassing a force to invade Ukraine.

If Russia does indeed stage such a false flag operation, the West would be able to say to the world, “See, we told you Russia would do something like this to justify its aggression.” That offers a key lesson: By anticipating and preempting nefarious schemes, disinformation tactics can be rendered less effective.

Democracy advocates would be wise to borrow from our national security tactics in facing their own authoritarian foe: a Republican Party that relies on constant deception and false claims of victimhood. We know the GOP’s strategy for elections these days: Claim in advance the contest is rigged, delegitimize common voting methods (e.g., voting by mail), concoct outlandish conspiracy theories to assert the election was “stolen” and then use partisan, fake audits to sow doubt in the results and, if possible, change the outcome.

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Long before the 2022 midterms, the Justice Department should put out an alert detailing Republicans’ election subversion playbook. It should remind the public that the GOP attempted to create election chaos in 2020 by raising false claims of invalid ballots in Georgia, spinning ballot-tampering conspiracies in Arizona and advancing false accusations that Democrats received more votes than were available. If voters recall how Republicans advanced the “big lie,” deployed crackpot lawyers to challenge results and utterly failed to provide any documentary proof for their claims, they might be better prepared for whatever con Republicans try to pull.

The Justice Department should also alert the public to the plethora of state laws, such as those in Georgia, Arizona, Florida and Texas, that criminalize ordinary conduct by election officials or pave the way for partisan legislators to displace neutral election officials and micromanage elections. At least 19 states passed such laws in 2021, and dozens of additional bills have been filed or readied for legislative sessions.

Voters might be stunned to learn about some of these diabolical schemes. For example, three nonpartisan voting reform groups — States United Democracy Center, Protect Democracy and Law Forward — issued a memo last year explaining that Texas’s new law “forges a new, perilous path in overturning election results” by lowering the burden of proof to show fraud. “If the number of votes at issue would have been outcome determinative, then a judge can overturn the election ‘without attempting to determine how individual voters voted.’” The memo also warns, “The combination of a low burden of proof and the availability of such a dramatic remedy is an open door to near constant election litigation and uncertainty in Texas.” Voters in the state should be prepared for Republicans to activate these mechanisms.

Meanwhile, a host of Republican candidates running for attorney general and secretary of state in multiple states have already endorsed the “big lie,” revealing that they will act as rabid partisans in handling election administration and litigation. NPR reports, there are “at least 15 Republican candidates running who question the legitimacy of President Biden’s 2020 win, even though no evidence of widespread fraud has been uncovered about the race over the last 14 months.” At least eight of them have even formed a “coalition of America First secretary of state candidates.” Democrats must identify them, denounce them as unfit to hold office and prepare to monitor and report on any skulduggery if the “big lie” advocates win.

By revealing before the election the Republican subversion playbook and identifying the mechanisms for corrupting election results and imperiling impartial election officials, the Justice Department can help ensure that every vote is counted and bogus claims of fraud fall on deaf ears. Attorney General Merrick Garland will need a well-funded and staffed operation to police these tactics.

If the administration can take the wind out of the sails of Russian propagandists seeking to shift blame for a possible invasion, certainly Democrats can undercut Republicans’ disinformation techniques to nullify or delegitimize elections. It’s not too late to begin educating voters.

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