As we know by now, one of the challenges of the digital revolution has been the ease with which bad actors can spread lies and misinformation. Russia, for instance, famously influenced the 2016 election by publishing “articles” that had no basis in fact. They often went viral, like one that said Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump.
The 2020 election, thus far, seems to have had less foreign interference than 2016. But there has still been a stream of misinformation that threatens to sow discord if enough people believe it. That’s why we’re laying out some of the worst falsehoods to have circulated on social media and elsewhere—separating fact from fiction.
1. Did the Postal Service lose 300,000 mail ballots?
On Election Day, the Washington Post reported that roughly 300,000 mail-in ballots could not be traced. As one Post journalist tweeted, these ballots entered processing facilities but never left them, suggesting they had not been delivered to local election boards and thus not counted. This led to a collective freak-out that hundreds of thousands of voters had been disenfranchised.
According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, however, those ballots were not scanned because letter carriers and postal workers were following a directive from the national headquarters to avoid taking election mail through processing centers. Instead, the ballots were sorted at local post offices, where they were post-marked and delivered directly to local clerks, all to speed up the process, not slow or thwart it.
This was an idea that came from the major postal unions, who wanted to prevent ballot delivery delays, as the Washington Monthly first reported last month. So, while the barcode data could not trace a number of ballots because they were not scanned at processing warehouses, that does not mean they were not delivered. In fact, it means those ballots were delivered quicker than they otherwise would have been.
2. Is Arizona invalidating ballots because voters filled them out with Sharpie pens given to them by poll workers?
No. Of course not. This is a lie spread by Republicans. such as Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union “On #Election Day, [Maricopa County’s Elections Department] Recorder encouraged voters to use #Sharpie pens,” he tweeted. “Now it’s a problem? How convenient!” The rumor, referred to as SharpieGate, has gone viral.
Arizona officials emphatically deny any truth to this claim; and that votes recorded with Sharpies are not being thrown out. “Those ballots are being counted,” Arizona’s secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, said on local television.
3. Have there really been more ballots cast in Wisconsin than there are registered voters?
No. This rumor seems to have originated on Twitter. “How the hell are there more votes than voters in WI?” tweeted George Papadopoulos, a minor figure in the Russia investigation. The answer is simple: There isn’t.
Wisconsin is one of 21 states, as well as the District of Columbia, that allow for same-day registration. Even still, the Badger State recorded more than 3.2 million votes, its highest turnout since 2004. Still, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, it had more than 3.6 million active registered voters as of November 1.
4. Were there more than 40,000 rejected ballots in Georgia’s DeKalb County?
This falsehood has the potential to be combustible. Georgia’s count could decide the election.
On Wednesday, Gill Freeman, a former candidate for the Georgia State Senate, tweeted that “40,000 rejected vote by mail ballots in DeKalb County need to be cured by Friday or they will be tossed (mismatch signature, etc.), verify your ballot status.” Quickly, the tweet racked up more than 40,000 retweets, including from singer John Legend and actress Kerry Washington. The only problem: It’s not true. DeKalb County had only rejected 202 ballots that needed to be cured, meaning contacting voters and notifying them of a problem with their absentee ballot, giving them a chance to fix it. The tweet has since been deleted.
5. Are Democrats trying to steal the election?
Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo tweeted a Federalist article with the non-subtle headline “Yes, Democrats Are Trying to Steal the Election in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.” (Bartiromo has appeared to have since deleted her tweet, which was flagged by Twitter.) This is not the only story the Federalist has run in the last two days to raise doubt in the election process, effectively helping the Trump camp fuel its disinformation campaign.
This storyline is only true if you equate counting and stealing. There is nothing sinister about counting ballots after Election Day. In fact, it’s been the norm for decades.
It’s also worth noting that Trump and the Republicans in key swing states engineered it so that the counting of absentee ballots—which polling indicated would lean overwhelmingly Democratic—would take longer, all to ensure a delay that would provide Trump a window of opportunity to claim fraud and contest the election.
We warned about this in September, after GOP lawmakers blocked legislation in multiple states, including Pennsylvania, to start counting absentee ballots before Election Day, as other states with a history of mail voting do, such as Florida and Ohio.
6. Is anything Donald Trump saying or tweeting true?
As to be expected, the number one source of misinformation is Donald Trump. Trump held a press conference early Wednesday morning spewing a number of lies: that he won key states he has not; that he has won the election overall; that votes are being “found” rather than counted; that Pennsylvania elections officials are trying to make his lead disappear. We could go on. But the point is pretty clear: Americans shouldn’t believe what they hear from their president.