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‘Citizen Integrity’ Teams’ Efforts Could Be Groundwork for Next False Claims About Election Results

Election denier groups are using defective “research” practices to gather material that could become false claims of fraud in the midterms.

In some states, election deniers motivated by false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election are engaging in their own, deeply flawed investigations to substantiate myths of widespread voter fraud. They have organized to engage in practices like amateur data matching with voter rolls, door-to-door canvassing to compare residents’ statements with voter records, and surveillance of mail ballot drop boxes. These error-ridden practices can disenfranchise eligible voters and strain election official resources.

Driven by well-funded organizations like the Conservative Partnership Institute, new networks have spun once-fringe grassroots groups into an interconnected web awash in misinformation. They burden election workers who must respond to the conspiracy-laden claims that result, and they risk intimidating voters and propelling mass challenges that could disenfranchise rightful voters.

These groups’ efforts might also produce material that they can use to concoct false claims to challenge the 2022 election results and further undermine confidence in American elections. Similar attempts have existed in recent election cycles, but this year’s efforts follow a two-year disinformation campaign to cast doubt on President Biden’s victory. The groups seek to exploit members of the public who have been falsely told the 2020 election was “stolen” and that these types of efforts can prevent it from happening again. The methods used by the groups behind these initiatives have reached worrisome levels of coordination and commonality in 2022.

This resource aims to preempt any effort to use deceptive, dangerous, and deeply flawed methods to challenge election results or cast doubt on the security of American elections after November 8. And it proposes ways to curb the risks that these practices pose to election administration.

Data Matching

Data matching is an important tool used by election officials to verify the identity of newly registered voters or practice list maintenance — the periodic practice of clearing out registrants who are no longer eligible to vote in the jurisdiction. They engage in data matching with special processes to avoid removing any eligible voters from the rolls. They use National Change of Address registries to flag voters who may have permanently moved to another jurisdiction, which they then confirm by sending postcards.

Activists are being encouraged by those who claim the 2020 election was “stolen” to perform their own amateur data matching. They are using National Change of Address lists, tax assessor data, a portal operated by government contractor Schneider Geospatial, public map services, and public voter data from multiple states to make inferences about current voter eligibility and past election legitimacy. In doing so, they are cobbling together incomplete datasets that can later become “evidence” for candidates to baselessly challenge the legitimacy of the election if they lose.

Amateur data matching pitfalls and how it may be used to challenge election outcomes

So far, we have seen this practice lead to mass challenges to voter eligibility in states including Michigan and Georgia. These challenges threaten to disenfranchise eligible voters or force them to cast provisional ballots, which can put strains on supplies and lines at the polls and also provide fodder for further specious challenges. These challenges also burden election officials, who must expend time reviewing them.

Databases that contain information like names and birthdates are not without error or inconsistency. Typos (e.g., Pierce and Peirce) and transposed family and given names (e.g., Bao Lu and Lu Bao) can cause a failed match when two entries represent the same person. Conversely, “partial” matches may create the impression that two entries represent the same person when they do not (e.g., William Jones Sr. may have passed away, but his son William Jones Jr. remains in the family home).

In part because of these many pitfalls, data matching performed by election officials is a highly regulated practice with built-in guardrails, including postcard confirmations and prohibitions on list maintenance too close to a federal election.

Since 2021, amateur data matching has led to numerous misleading reports about the 2020 election, and it may be used by conspiracy theorists to eventually launch a new disinformation campaign if they are unhappy with the results of the midterms.

Indeed, the organization Look Ahead America, founded by former Trump campaign staffers, recently alleged that about 40,000 registered Arizona voters who supposedly appear on a National Change of Address list are no longer eligible to vote in 2022. The claims relied on a review of a sample of “social media websites along with blogs, review sites like Yelp and Google Reviews, news articles, property records, tax records, and court records.” The group’s “researchers” appear to have searched through these sources to make inferences about whether a few dozen voters had moved out of state, then extrapolated from this “sample” to the rest of the National Change of Address list.

Posting a review for a restaurant out of state is not an indicator that somebody has permanently moved, nor are partial matches between information in a social media profile and voter data a reliable way to verify identity. But an unsubstantiated claim that 40,000 voters are ineligible can lay the groundwork to undermine results in the event the margin of victory between two candidates is close to that number.

Door-to-Door Canvassing

When describing the actions of “citizen integrity” teams, canvassing is when private individuals or representatives of groups go door-to-door to compare voter records with residents. Canvassers often ask for personal information, such as who lives at an address, if they are registered to vote, and what method residents used to vote in recent elections. Incidences of door-to-door canvassing have increased since the 2020 election, with reports in at least 17 states.footnote1_re0eMcpVsN7G1Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Washington. These efforts are often led by conspiracy theorists and election deniers, with many canvassers focused on finding evidence of widespread fraud. No canvassing operation has produced such evidence (nor has anyone else).

Some private citizen canvassers give a mistaken impression that they are government officials. In Washington, they reportedly carry clipboards with the county seal and badges labeled with a phrase similar to “Spokane County Voter Integrity Board” or “Official Election Auditor.” Other canvassers attempt to collect affidavits from residents or present threatening behaviors such as carrying firearms. Eligible voters may feel intimidated by these exchanges or worry that they are the target of government investigations, stalking, or potentially violent threats.

Voter intimidation in all forms and in all places is against the law. Anyone experiencing it should contact their local election official or call 866-OUR-VOTE.

Unofficial canvassing pitfalls and how it may be used to cast doubt on election outcomes

Canvassing is not a reliable method for collecting complete and accurate information about voting history. Residents — especially those who feel intimidated — may refuse to answer, give partial information, or even give inaccurate information to avoid follow-ups. In other cases, the person answering the door may not be able to answer accurately (e.g., a child answering on behalf of parents) or the questions being asked may be poorly drafted or worded inconsistently. Past efforts by canvassers determined to find fraud show that canvassers are generally not able to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence.

Some canvassers use their “findings” as a basis for mass challenges to the eligibility of other voters. For example, Georgia’s Gwinnett County saw a challenge of 37,500 voters in September that was partially based on the testimony of canvassers (as well as amateur data matching). The county ultimately dismissed all the challenges.

Because voter challenges can disenfranchise eligible voters, federal and state law impose high burdens of proof on challengers. But failed challenges still force election officials to dedicate time and resources to responding. And their very failure can become fodder for further conspiracy theories.

Canvassing in 2022 is additionally concerning because the purported results can be used as a faulty way to create disinformation and call election results into doubt, as was the case after 2020. A Pennsylvania group claimed that 37 percent of the households it surveyed in one county regarding the 2020 election had “egregious discrepancies,” although the claim fell apart under scrutiny. This year, canvassers may again release their “findings” only after the election, when they can stoke doubt about the results without meeting legal standards for bringing official challenges to eligibility.

End Notes

Drop box Surveillance

Ballot drop boxes provide additional locations for voters to return their completed absentee ballots in signed and sealed envelopes, and they make voting easier and more accessible for eligible voters. The 2020 election saw efforts to undermine access to mail voting and discredit the security of ballot drop boxes based on false claims about them facilitating widespread fraud.

In reality, drop boxes are secure, and election administrators follow the same strict security protocols to verify and count ballots received via drop boxes as they do in collecting all other ballots. In spite of the facts, conspiracy theorists and election deniers continue to target ballot drop boxes as sources of fraud and corruption.

Earlier this year, a conservative activist released a film that has been thoroughly debunked. Titled 2,000 Mules, it falsely claimed the 2020 election was “stolen” with the help of 2,000 hired operatives that engaged in widespread voter fraud by “stuffing” fake ballots into drop boxes across the country. Inspired by the baseless claims made in this film, groups of private citizens are organizing to surveil drop boxes in 2022.

During Arizona’s primary election in August, groups held “drop box tailgate parties” to “protect free and fair elections” and “prevent[] mules from stealing the election.” With early voting for the general election now underway, right-wing extremist groups are recruiting volunteers to monitor drop boxes. Individuals were seen stationed outside of multiple drop boxes in Maricopa County with cameras and walkie-talkies — and in one instance, reportedly armed and in tactical gear — during the first weeks of early voting.

Why drop box surveillance is a problem and how it may be used to cast doubt on election outcomes

Stationing private citizens at ballot drop box locations does not provide any protection against improper ballot returns. Private citizens surveilling drop boxes have no way of reliably determining whether someone is returning a ballot illegally, as many states allow family members to return absentee ballots on a voter’s behalf. Further, making judgments based solely on physical appearance creates risks of profiling and racial discrimination.

While drop box surveillance does not enhance ballot security, it does substantially increase the likelihood of voter intimidation, which is illegal. Under federal law, acts that have the effect of intimidating voters are illegal, regardless of the actors’ intent.

Individuals who are unhappy with the results of the midterms may choose to again use fabricated and misleading “evidence” of alleged drop box misuse, gathered through private citizen surveillance operations, to spread disinformation and sow doubt about the accuracy of the vote counts. Volunteers have been encouraged to use an “evidence collection app” called VotifyNow to “build a body of evidence on a national database.”

Some of those organizing drop box surveillance efforts have instructed volunteers to gather photo and video evidence and have claimed to be “geotracking” individuals believed to be “mules.” These are the same flawed methods used by the creators of the 2,000 Mules film. In fact, one group engaged in organizing drop box surveillance efforts across multiple states has publicly acknowledged a partnership with True the Vote, the organization behind the creation of 2,000 MulesReports suggest that election deniers may use these same flawed methods again to cast doubt on the outcome of elections this year.

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These error-prone practices burden election workers, risk disenfranchising eligible voters, and provide the fuel for misinformation campaigns. And they can provide fodder for casting doubt on legitimate election results that the groups involved in this collection of information don’t like.

However, election workers, voters, and the media can take steps to prevent these harms. During the midterms, election officials should continue to do the right thing: treating claims backed by noncredible materials with extreme caution and acting to protect all eligible voters from disenfranchisement or unnecessary burdens.

If approached by anyone using these methods, voters can seek help from local or state election offices or reach out to 866-OUR-VOTE.

And news outlets should provide accurate context if they choose to cover assertions by groups or individuals who engage in these flawed practices and when losing candidates use faulty methods to sow doubt about election results.

It is important to remember that all reliable evidence shows that our elections — including the 2020 election — are safesecure, accurate, fair, and free of widespread voter fraud. We cannot let these dangerous and defective schemes compromise our democracy.