Election misinformation could spread this week: What to watch out for

Officials warn of false information amid 2022 election

FILE - A man passes an early voting poll site, on Feb. 14, 2022, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File) (Eric Gay, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

DETROIT – Election Day is today -- are you ready?

Not just to vote: We also have to be prepared for harmful rhetoric and misinformation about the election process that are sure to surface on Election Day and beyond.

The fact is that elections are more secure today than ever before in history. Yet, false information about election security spread like wildfire a few years ago and hasn’t stopped since. This misinformation can cause people to doubt the election process, which experts and investigators have consistently found to be secure and reliable.

It can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, especially when those “pink slime” news websites appear to be so realistic. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept the false information circulating online and in our circles, and we certainly shouldn’t help spread it.

To help prepare ourselves for a misinformation storm, we should: know the facts, know what misinformation looks like, and be sure we -- and those close to us -- don’t spread it further when we see it.

Michigan officials expect misinformation to be an issue this week and beyond, as election results may take at least 24 hours to come in.

Room for misinformation

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8, but voting has been underway in Michigan for weeks. Several million Michigan voters have requested to vote absentee, also known as “voting by mail,” in the general election.

When polls close at 8 p.m. and it’s time to count votes, every absentee ballot received by local clerks’ offices must be opened, validated and then tabulated. With millions and millions of absentee ballots, the process takes some time.

And election workers are not allowed to open and tabulate absentee ballots before polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day. Some Michigan jurisdictions are allowed to prepare the ballots for opening, but only to an extent -- those ballots cannot be opened and counted until polls are closed.

Because of this, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is telling voters not to expect election results right away. Results will come in sooner for some races, but other races are expected to take at least until the late afternoon or evening on Wednesday, Nov. 9 -- the day after Election Day -- “barring any disruption,” she said.

Data shows that the overwhelming majority of absentee ballots are requested by Democratic voters, so their results will likely largely favor Democratic candidates. This means that early election results may significantly swing in favor of Republicans at first as in-person votes are counted, since a majority of Republican voters say they plan to vote in person. A significant surge in Democratic votes are expected to follow, as absentee ballots are opened and counted, however.

It’s during this time -- the hours after polls close when results are not finalized and absentee ballots are still being counted -- that misinformation may spread in an effort to sow doubt in the election’s integrity and security.

Benson warned voters last week that “bad actors” may “seize on this time” to “spread misinformation and lies about the security of the tabulation process, and preemptively attempt to declare results.”

“We’re asking you to remember that only a full tabulation of every valid vote will determine the winner in any election contest,” Benson said. “We, our office, will transparently share the facts and data of the election, just as we always have ... and we will fact check misinformation on our website.”

What does misinformation look like?

You’ve probably heard both terms “misinformation” and “disinformation,” and they essentially mean the same thing. But we’ll just stick with one to make things easier.

Misinformation is inaccurate information that is intentionally produced and shared in an effort to deceive people.

Following the 2020 presidential election, misinformation was presented in a number of ways: It was spread online in phony news articles and on social media, on TV, through lawsuits and from person to person, sometimes spoken directly from Trump or politicians who support him directly to their constituents.

While allegations of election fraud are extremely serious, election fraud is not a common occurrence, according to the many investigations and audits that have been conducted over the last few years. Audits and recounts of 2020 election processes and results across the U.S. found little to no voter fraud whatsoever. If instances of voter fraud did exist, they were small and isolated incidents, and certainly not widespread.

Which goes to show that once misinformation is spread enough, false statements can become widely believed concepts that have a huge impact.

People and politicians across the nation continue to push the lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump, and that elections are not secure nationwide. Even here in Michigan, Republican candidates running for Michigan governor (Tudor Dixon) and Michigan secretary of state (Kristina Karamo) support the lie publicly.

With just weeks until the 2022 general election, Karamo filed a lawsuit seeking to disqualify all absentee ballots from the city of Detroit, alleging that the absentee ballot counting system in Detroit is flawed and violates election law. This lawsuit attempted to disqualify tens of thousands of ballots before Election Day even began.

A judge on Monday rejected that request, saying the suit “failed dramatically,” and that the claims made by Karamo were “unsubstantiated and/or misinterpret Michigan election law.”

More on that: Judge rejects Michigan GOP SOS candidate’s request to disqualify absentee ballots in Detroit

Lawsuits have been cropping up across the nation in an attempt to disqualify mail-in ballots and claim fraudulence ahead of Election Day. Those who oppose these actions argue that such lawsuits and claims are designed to suppress votes and sow doubt in election results.

How does it spread?

Individuals and groups may spread misinformation for a variety of reasons, such as: they are trying to rope people into a false reality or narrative that benefits them and their agenda, or people may incorrectly believe they are sharing truthful information that could help inform others.

Either way, misinformation has clogged up digital media platforms so drastically in the U.S. that a good percentage of the population may believe something false to actually be true, while others believe something else entirely to be true -- hence the dramatic polarization among Americans we see today.

Misinformation is a particularly useful and common tool used by extremist groups or groups with radical ideologies in an effort to attract and recruit others into their group. These groups use the internet and social media to attract people, sharing Facebook posts and writing inaccurate articles on questionable news sites to reel them in. Their misinformation spreads like wildfire -- both by people who believe in it and people who are warning others not to -- and some latch onto it and allow it to take hold in their lives.

So many people know that Trump was pushing a false narrative so that he could unethically claim a second term as president, yet so many others believed his lies and still do to this day.

Misinformation is untrue information. It poses a danger to people physically -- like the Jan. 6 insurrection, for example -- and conceptually, as a good portion of Americans have lost trust in government and election processes, which could threaten our democracy as it stands.

That’s why it’s so important to not spread misinformation when you see it. When you see misinformation, do not share it -- even in an attempt to warn others or show that it’s false. Doing so only amplifies the untruthful message, sharing that message with an even larger audience, which is counterintuitive.

We all have the power to post, re-post, share and consume media -- we should be sure that what we’re sharing and consuming is accurate information from a reputable source. Be sure to avoid pink slime news websites, which are phony news sites meant to look like local news sites, but instead exist to push an agenda, often aligning with far right-wing ideologies. Instead, look for news websites that you know and trust.

It’s also important to read entire articles and not just headlines before sharing a written piece. Often times, headlines from phony news sites are designed to be outrageous and stoke the flames among the American people, while the information inside is either unsubstantiated or unrelated altogether.

Getting ready for Election Day

If you haven’t already voted, check out our 2022 Michigan voter guide here, where we’re sharing information about key races, ballot proposals and more.

If you’ve already voted absentee, you can track your submitted ballot right here.

If you’re voting absentee but haven’t turned in your completed ballot yet, be sure to drop it off at your local clerk’s office or your local official ballot drop box before 8 p.m. on Election Day. Click here to find locations for both.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. on Election Day, which is Tuesday, Nov. 8. Click here to find your polling precinct.

How ballots are counted

Local 4′s Grant Hermes reports: Millions of votes are cast in Michigan, and each ballot has a number at the top that is unique to that precinct.

Once the ballot is filled out it goes to machines called tabulators, which read votes just like a Scantron test in school. The machines can even take pictures to make sure write-in candidates are counted.

That process is done over and over until the end of the night when polls close.

First, the box inside is unlocked, making sure the seal on the tabulator stick is unbroken. The stick is a flash drive with a tamper-evident seal that has to be intact and match the records to the machine. Then the election worker hits print. The machine spits out what amounts to an election receipt time and date three times. One for the county board of canvassers, one for a county judge and one for the local clerk -- and it all gets triple checked.

After that, it’s time to count the ballots, matching the number of ballots in the locked box inside the tabulator to the number of voters they counted that day to the number in the poll, each signed off on by a Republican and a Democrat.

The ballots are then stored, again under a signed lock and seal, in a box or bag. That flash drive, in its own tamper-evident sealed pouch, is taken to the county clerk’s office.

Click here to see Grant Hermes’ entire story about what happens to your Michigan ballot after it’s cast.

Read more: Inside look: How WDIV collects, reports election results, what to expect

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.