The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fearful calls flood election offices as Trump attacks mail-in voting, threatening participation in GOP strongholds

Ricky Hatch, clerk and auditor for Utah’s Weber County, helps organize mail-in ballots in Ogden. (Kim Raff for The Washington Post)

Weber County, a majority-
Republican community of 260,000 on the eastern shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, held its first by-mail election in 2013. The process gained such widespread confidence that by June of this year, more than 99 percent of ballots cast in the primary were placed in the mail or deposited in a drop box.

But something has changed in Weber County, which now requires three full-time phone operators to field calls from residents “suddenly worried about voting by mail,” said Ricky Hatch, the county clerk and auditor.

“Voters refer to ballots being thrown in a ditch, a river and dumpsters,” said Hatch, a Republican. They mention “dogs receiving ballots” and worry about things such as foreign interference and “rogue postal workers.” Some ask about dead people voting, he said.

Similar questions are flooding county offices nationwide, including many where residents have routinely voted by mail, said Hatch, who also chairs the election committee for the National Association of Counties. In many cases, the worries can be traced to baseless or alarmist statements by President Trump and posts on his Twitter feed. Others have been fed by headlines stripped of context and misleading reporting in the mainstream media, according to election administrators, voting rights advocates and experts in online communication.

In the final moments of the first presidential debate, President Trump on Sept. 29 repeated his baseless claim that mail balloting will invite widespread fraud. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The confusion and chaos follow a months-long campaign by Trump and his allies to sow doubt about voting by mail, a method of casting ballots that has been embraced in Democratic- and Republican-leaning states and has grown more popular this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet recent mail delays have contributed to unease about whether ballots will arrive on time and be counted. Mistrust on the left is also rooted in Republican efforts to curtail some voting options. Many Democrats appear to have dealt with their fears by opting for early voting, powering overwhelming turnout, while Republicans insist they will make up ground on Election Day.

Trump in recent weeks has shifted his focus, tweeting less often about faulty ballots. But the partisan battle lines he drew on the issue seem to have had lingering effects in some places, and election officials say the controversy could depress turnout among Republicans.

In a statement, Trump campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald said the president “has been fighting for months” to stop what she described as “last-minute election rule changes.” The campaign, she said, wants “every voter who can vote in person to do so, and for those who cannot to get their absentee ballot in early.”

Intensifying the mistrust, experts said, are the power and reach of social media. They said the quest to turn minor irregularities into signs of malicious political intent — enabled by an information ecosystem that rewards outrage and partisan groupthink — poses among the greatest threats to the integrity of the Nov. 3 election.

“The amplification of these kinds of stories can have, in and of itself, a suppressive effect,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The events in Utah, she said, show the ripple effects of attacks by Trump and his allies on “legal, safe, secure voting methods.”

America in line: Photos of voters preparing to cast their ballots

Conflict over whether to expand opportunities to vote by mail has unfolded in battleground states from Wisconsin to North Carolina. But the most lasting consequence of the false and misleading narratives coursing through the Internet, often using real examples but exaggerating them to create the appearance of an alarming trend, could be a form of democratic backsliding in parts of the country where the widespread adoption of mail balloting has been shown to expand electoral participation.

“Obviously, the effort to question and undermine vote by mail has worked very well,” said Justin Lee, Utah’s director of elections, faulting the “national discussion” for what he and others described as an unprecedented level of confusion threatening to derail a well-functioning system in a Republican-controlled state.

Jason Stevenson, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said even states with long histories of voting by mail were unable to insulate themselves from narratives about mail balloting emanating this summer from Washington. “I don’t post national stories about the election,” he said.

But a powerful feedback loop has made it impossible to tune out these national controversies. One-off incidents documented by local media outlets are flowing to partisan voices, who use their online megaphones to reframe the details as indictments of the entire balloting process. The misleading narrative applied at the national level then filters back down to voters, causing them to distrust a system they have used for years.

In Utah, details about a mishap began to emerge earlier this month. Local CBS and Fox affiliates quoted residents of Sanpete County — 150 miles south of Weber County — who said they were confused to find missing signature lines on their ballots.

The county clerk’s office sought to assuage voters, advising them of an easy fix: merely signing in a different location. Officials also promised to send postcards to residents informing them of how to remedy the oversight. County leaders did not respond to a request for comment.

The ballot printing error, caused by a vendor, illustrated the benefits of a by-mail system, not its drawbacks, said Lee, the state elections director. Faulty ballots distributed in person on Election Day might have been more difficult to remedy, he said.

But the story quickly reverberated, amplified by conservative outlets and by pundits questioning the merits of voting by mail. The far-right website Breitbart cited the story from local Fox 13 — as well as a tweet from a reporter at KSL, an NBC affiliate — in an Oct. 14 story. The Breitbart piece positioned the glitch in Utah as part of an alarming pattern of election security issues affecting numerous states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.

A day later, Breitbart’s reporting gained the notice of the Dan Bongino Show, hosted by the former Secret Service agent and former congressional candidate. “It seems that almost daily we find stories about problems with mail-in voting,” an Oct. 15 story on the show’s website began, citing Breitbart.

Bongino, an influential conservative pundit closely aligned with Trump, shared the piece on Twitter to his nearly 2.5 million followers. “It’s only going to get worse,” he wrote on Facebook.

The transformation of the Utah story — from a small-town technical mishap into purported proof of widespread voter fraud — illustrated to some experts the extent to which mainstream news reporting collides with the reach of social media sites and the agenda of influential political figures to stoke fear and reinforce the misconceptions of nervous voters.

A study released this month by Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society offered fresh evidence of the dangers posed by homegrown misinformation. For months, Trump has generated entire news cycles that serve to cast doubt about mail-in voting, which mainstream outlets have at times covered uncritically, the report found. The president’s influential allies have eagerly shared these and other stories with their vast online audiences, enhancing their reach and fomenting fresh doubt about the legitimacy of the 2020 vote.

“With respect to mail-in voter fraud, the driver of the disinformation campaign has been Trump, as president, supported by his campaign and Republican elites,” said Yochai Benkler, who leads the center and co-wrote the report.

In these and other cases, ­Benkler said, misconceptions and hoaxes that take root in the White House come to frame reporting in mainstream and partisan news sources alike. Any development related to the process of voting becomes fodder in a competition for narrative control.

“The question is, who picks up that formal announcement and reframes it, or retells it, as a narrative of rampant fraud,” he said.

Printing errors are not the only problems that have spooked voters throughout Utah, including Weber County, where Trump bested Democrat Hillary Clinton by 20 percentage points in 2016. In a Facebook group hosting conversations for residents of Ogden, the county seat, comments from a right-wing YouTuber about the rejection of mail-in ballots in California led one user to doubt that the process was safe.

Another resident asked whether the removal of mail-sorting machines, decried by Democrats, also worried any conservatives in the group. “If they can lose my package, they can easily lose my ballot,” a user commented. “See the issue here?” The Postal Service maintains that it has “ample capacity” to handle the increased volume of mail-in ballots anticipated this cycle.

Lori Cash, a 22-year USPS veteran, talks about the Trump administration's influence on the Postal Service and how it is causing concerns for mail-in ballots. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trust in reliable mail delivery once united the parties in places such as Weber County.

“In the past, voting in person was something you did if you spilled coffee on your ballot,” said Lacy Richards, the county’s Republican chairwoman.

Now, insistence by some on casting a ballot in person — inspired by the president’s call to his supporters to doubt the existing system, even to test it by voting twice — threatens to overwhelm voting-day infrastructure, some fear.

Across Utah, concerns about mail balloting have grown so severe that as many as 22 percent of likely voters plan to vote in person, according to a Y2 Analytics survey earlier this month. That would represent double the share of voters who normally participate in person, Hatch said, warning that the state, ordinarily equipped for a fully mail-in system, “does not have enough equipment in place to handle that many voters on one day.” He envisioned long lines and health risks, as well as the possibility that “voters who can’t wait that long to vote will be disenfranchised simply because they won’t return their ballots the same way they’ve been returning them for years.”

“If they come in person at that rate, our system will be overwhelmed, and those who have aggressively expressed concerns about voting will have needlessly fulfilled their own prophecy,” Hatch said.