Colorado’s secretary of state sent 30,000 non-citizens postcards that encouraged them to register to vote. Shortly after, the secretary of state’s office released a statement saying it was a mistake based on a system error. This incident is probably one of the largest mistakes relating to elections since the 2020 election. Still, with the ever-increasing polarization in the news, leading to massive echo chambers of political ideology, people who touted election fraud claims have seen this incident as confirming many of their false conceptions, further contributing to the rise of populism.
Former President Donald Trump’s MAGA campaign contains many popular populist sentiments that have turned rather dangerous, especially within the last couple of years. From refusing to wear a mask early on in the pandemic, to using racist remarks that led to an increase in Asian hate crimes, to denying the results of an election and encouraging his supporters to protest the election certification, which led to the infamous January 6th invasion of the capital, former President Donald Trump’s messaging has had a massive negative impact on democracy in the US. Both before and after the 2020 election, there have been numerous claims about potential widespread election fraud and many lawsuits attempting to change the outcome of an election in certain states. Almost all claims have been refuted except for a few rare and small cases that would have had no overall impact on the election as a whole. In recent months, the claims have subsided slightly, but, on October 7th, a news organization called CPR released an article outlining a very large electoral mistake that has reignited the flames of election fraud claims and has “confirmed” people’s beliefs about the 2020 election.
In Colorado, 30,000 non-citizens were sent postcards that encouraged them to register to vote. The secretary of state’s office released a statement (seen in a Washington Post article) saying it was a database error where postcards were sent to noncitizens who had a special Colorado license and had a name that showed up on a list “provided by the Electronic Registration Information Center.” According to the Washington Post article, the secretary of state’s office has sent postcards telling those non-citizens to not register and that the previous postcard was a mistake, they have increased security by doing daily checks of the social security numbers of those who registered, and reporting suspicious cases to the local district attorneys. Unfortunately, this news story has garnered massive attention across Twitter, other social media, and news stations, where many people have regurgitated claims of election fraud and used this story as a way to confirm their ill-informed beliefs that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Trump through election fraud.
In our current world, media plays an extremely large part in people’s lives and is constantly influencing political views. In the article “Bias in Cable News” by Gregory Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, they explore how much influence the media has on the way people vote. Their findings indicate that removing Fox News would’ve reduced the Republican presidential vote share in 2008 by 6.34 points. With Fox News leaning even more toward the right than in 2008 and social media algorithms putting people into an echo chamber, one can imagine how much the 6.34 percentage points has increased. Martin and Yurukoglu also find that Fox News is able to persuade at much higher rates than others because their “extreme location allows it to out-persuade its relatively moderate competition.” The massive pull of Fox News, especially during and after the Trump presidency, makes it a potentially dangerous entity to democracy in the US because of the populist rhetoric that is spouted mainly by their opinion hosts (Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity). Based on info from a statistic tracking company four of the top five watched news programs in America are from Fox News, with Rachel Maddow of MSNBC as the fifth most watched.
In Jan-Werner Muller’s book What is Populism?, he sets forth a definition of populism, and some of the main characteristics he describes are anti-elitism, and a person who claims only he alone can help the country (my emphasis). Former president Donald Trump fits Muller’s definition of a populist very closely with his “drain the swamp” antielitist messaging (even as he was in office), his attacks on election processes, and his labeling of the press as the enemy of the people, and routinely describing his loyal followers as knowing the actual truth of everything, even going as far as making a social media platform called Truth Social. One of the markers of a dwindling democracy is the rejection of election results. Trump’s rhetoric has been covered across social media and most notably the news where the top stations spew out verifiably false information to their viewers. This in turn leads them to believe the info because Fox News has such a high persuasion rate, as shown by the “Bias in Cable News” research paper.
The Colorado postcard mistake is an incident that will not lead to widespread voter fraud, because with the in-place and additional security measures, none should be registered, however, the people that formerly believed the election fraud lies, will see this incident as confirmation of their views. Since this is the largest verifiable electoral mistake to happen (which is resolved), Republicans, or rather loyal Donald Trump followers, will continue to point to this isolated incident as proof of the numerous of false claims before. The lack of accountability of news stations with such a high ability to persuade that relay false information is the reason why the database error led to even more false claims about election fraud. It is also a very large reason for the increasing populist sentiments growing in America, especially those sentiments on the right.
It was very interesting to read about how a simple election mistake in Colorado has been extrapolated by the media, President Trump, and Republican politicians and commentators to signify widespread voter fraud. The media, President Trump, and his supporters have created an interesting paradigm in which Trump and conservative media paint isolated instances as fraud, which then affirms Trump’s position as an anti-establishment populist.
I also wrote my blog post about voter suppression, but within the context of being a tool for politicians to aggregate power under the table. I had never considered the role of the media in promulgating claims of fraud. Voter suppression as a concept is built upon the premise that there either exists or is potential for widespread voter fraud. This then justifies policies that ostensibly prevent fraud, but just end up restricting voting access. While President Trump may be the source of the ‘stolen’ election story, it is the conservative media who peddles the conspiracy, affirming the resolve of his followers with isolated instances like the ballots in Colorado.
With this in mind, these media outlets are just as if not more culpable in proliferating restrictive policies by cementing the premise they are built upon. While deposing politicians who promote fraud conspiracies is a step in the right direction, it leaves guilty media outlets free of culpability. Without advocating for restricting the press, at some point entities who promote anti-democratic conspiracies and electoral laws need to be held accountable, especially when they are objectively false. Alternatively, increased transparency around voting practices could also undermine the false claims pushed by outlets and promote more objective reporting. In either case, the fight against voter suppression needs to shift some of its focus to the outlets that provide it a lifeline.