With California’s gubernatorial recall election happening on Tuesday, the state’s voters have been flooded with conspiracy theories aimed at undermining their faith in its outcome.
With polls now showing sitting Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom firmly in the lead, right-wing media have been steadily pushing election misinformation — laying the groundwork to claim that the forthcoming election is rigged before the votes are even cast.
Predictably, Fox News has been beating that election misinformation drum. Pro-recall Facebook groups are also teeming with voter fraud conspiracy theories. Former Fox contributor Richard Grenell, who served as a cabinet member in the Trump administration, is even calling for people to catalog supposed instances of voter fraud happening across the Golden State on his website.
Conservatives have latched onto four different bogus pieces of evidence to cast a pall over the results of the recall effort before the election even takes place.
Right-wing figures are claiming California’s ballot design will lead to fraud
On August 19, Grenell shared a video of a California voter claiming that holes punched in mail-in ballot envelopes allowed ballot handlers to identify “yes” votes on the ballot’s central question of whether they wanted to to remove Newsom. The person in the video made a bogus claim that the envelope design is “sketchy” and can be used to tamper with the “yes” votes.
In reality, the holes in question are a tactile way for the visually impaired to locate the ballot envelope’s signature line. They also act as a visual aid for election officials to quickly identify if an uncounted ballot has been left in an envelope. (Additionally, each county in California designs its own ballots, so the fact that a ballot in one county lines up with the envelope holes when folded one very particular way is hardly evidence of fraud.)
But the fact that the ballot holes controversy was easily debunked didn’t stop right-wing media figures from running with the narrative. The day after Grenell tweeted the video, The Daily Wire's Michael Knowles cited it as proof that Democrats cheat in elections and implied that the ballot design was part of a clever statewide conspiracy to allow political operatives to identify votes in favor of the recall and trash them.
Right-leaning media outlets are vilifying the state's accessible voting system
In early August, right-wing media seized on a voting feature, Remote Access Vote-by-Mail, that allows some disabled voters to fill out their ballots online and print them at home. The system isn’t used widely and limits each user to printing one ballot, and “the voter’s choices are also transferred to a ballot and both documents are stored together for a post-election audit.” But conservatives spent the past month billing the system as a tool California Democrats would use to rig the recall election.
On August 9, right-wing website RedState published an article that describes the remote voting feature as a “scheme” concocted by “crazy California Democrats” to “cheat on elections.” The same day, One America News Network host Natalie Harp cast doubt on the home-printed ballot program for disabled voters, asking, “How does California define what’s a disability?”
On August 19, Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield fearmongered about California’s remote voting program, asking his audience, “Can you imagine if we start printing our own ballots? Our elections would be lawless. Can you imagine if we don’t go after voter fraud? We have to.” Stinchfield’s segment also cited the “ballot holes” video mentioned above as additional evidence of widespread voter fraud.
During a September 7 appearance on Newsmax, election misinformation superspreader former President Donald Trump claimed with no pushback from the interviewer that the California recall election is “probably rigged” before mentioning that “you can even make your own ballot” — a seeming reference to remote vote-by-mail.
Right-wing media are misleadingly amplifying an incident of mail theft as “stealing votes”
On August 23, news stations reported that police in Torrance, California, found 300 unopened mail-in ballots for the recall election in a car parked outside a 7-Eleven along with a sleeping man, a bunch of other mail, a gun, and drugs.
While one might reasonably assume that the ballots were incidentally taken along with the thousands of other pieces of stolen mail, right-wing media immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was clear evidence widespread of voter fraud.
On Facebook, Fox News’ social media headline read: “STEALING VOTES: Hundreds of Calif. recall ballots, drugs, loaded gun found in passed-out felon’s car: police.”
Breitbart, The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, and Fox host Dan Bongino each shared the story. Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder also shared a link to a YouTube video from right-wing podcaster Tim Pool, who discussed the stolen ballots.
Pro-Trump media networks OAN and Newsmax also ran with the story. During an interview with Elder on August 24, OAN host Dan Ball cited the Torrance story, and other claims as evidence of voter fraud. Elder responded, “Well, we know what happened in 2020. We know about all the fraud, shenanigans that went on in the 2020 election. As you know, you can now print your own ballot here in California. What could possibly go wrong? That’s why we have a battery of lawyers watching all of this. … We're watching them. But I wouldn't put it past them.”
That same evening, OAN’s Harp told her audience that the Torrance ballots had been “intercepted.”
Right-wing actors highlight an Associated Press story about election fraud without giving context
On September 2, The Associated Press reported that a group of cybersecurity experts sent a letter to California’s secretary of state calling for an audit of the state’s election because unauthorized system images had been released at a right-wing voter fraud conference hosted by disgraced businessman Mike Lindell.
Right-wing personalities like Blaze TV host Steve Deace, preacher Jack Hibbs, and former Trump attorney Jenna Ellis all shared the story online, holding it up as evidence of fraud and casting doubt on the results of the forthcoming election. Unsurprisingly, none of them mentioned that experts were calling for an audit because right-wing activists had triggered a security threat.
Local newsrooms have had their hands full debunking all of these ridiculous claims, but right-wing media continue to spread them anyway, attempting to undermine the legitimacy of California's election.