Right-wing media jump on sloppy local news report, exaggerate a computer problem at one California neighborhood into mass voting fraud in recall

California’s gubernatorial recall has reached Election Day, after weeks of right-wing media circulating more and more outlandish claims that the results would be fraudulent. And in the home stretch, another story is making rounds in right-wing media circles fueled by local TV news messing up a story about a simple computer problem that got resolved.

As demonstrated in the 2020 election, the right-wing fever swamps of election fraud theories manage to latch onto isolated problems somewhere in a state, then blow it up into a vast conspiracy, and continue pushing the narratives even after the problems get fixed.

The latest example involved the early-voting locations in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, where people were told over the weekend that they were already shown in the system as having voted. Media Matters reached out to both the county and state election offices and received statements explaining the situation. (Any of these right-wing outlets could easily have requested these statements themselves — that is, if they actually cared about getting answers.)

A spokesperson from the California Secretary of State’s office said:

On Saturday, September 11, 2021, the Los Angeles County Registrar's Office identified issues with the settings on 91 electronic poll book devices out of 1,510 deployed for the California Gubernatorial Election. It was the result of an error in the loading sequence by their vendor.

In some cases, the affected devices incorrectly informed workers that voters had already participated in this election. Provisional ballots were provided to all voters who experienced this issue at a vote center to ensure no one was turned away from voting. Provisional ballots are the failsafe option and are counted during the Official Election Canvass after eligibility is determined.

A remediation deployment plan was quickly put in place to swap all impacted equipment. All affected devices were taken out of service and or replaced prior to Sunday September 12. The Department conducted additional field tests to ensure this issue has been resolved.

Similarly, the Los Angeles County Register-Recorder’s office explained: “The voters who experienced this issue were offered and provided a provisional ballot – the failsafe option to ensure no one is turned away from voting. … After troubleshooting the issue, the equipment at the locations was replaced and voting continued.”

But feeling undeterred by facts, right-wing media and other conservative figures have now spun the story into claims that false ballots really had been filed under those people’s names, while ignoring the reports that had explained the situation and that it had indeed been fixed.

For example, Trump-connected lawyer and prolific conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell asserted in an interview livestreamed on Facebook on Monday with Richard Harris and Andrew Wommack of the Truth & Liberty Coalition: “In at least one county, it’s been reported to me that approximately 70% of the people who showed up to vote had been told that their votes had already been counted, that they’d already voted.” (Just to be clear, this did not occur in an entire county — it was a localized glitch in one neighborhood — and no ballots were on file as actually having been cast in these people’s names.)

In essence, right-wing media took advantage of initial lapses in a local outlet reporting those stories. Local CW affiliate KTLA’s initial headline for the online article on Saturday was a sweeping statement that “San Fernando Valley residents have trouble casting recall ballots,” which was since changed on Monday to “San Fernando Valley residents cast provisional ballots due to equipment issue.” The article itself highlighted voters’ complaints including one person’s unsubstantiated claim that “to her knowledge, many of those affected by this issue are self-identified Republicans” and that “she’s suspicious.”

Similarly, the station’s televised report also spent considerable time on the complaints of voters who said they did not trust the system, rather than explaining the situation. Indeed, the county’s statement came about halfway through the segment, and it was sandwiched between clips of voters making statements such as “it makes me question the result” or the local reporter saying that “some are now questioning the integrity of the election.”

Video file

Citation From a September 11, 2021, video posted to KTLA's website

And with presentations like that, right-wing media have run only with the tales of voter confusion, and dropped the explanations.

On Monday, Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield cited the story during an interview with Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder, in order to claim that the entire election was fraudulent.

“I don't think it's a big lie. I think there is a mail-in ballot scheme concocted by the Democrats,” Stinchfield said. “We saw in one school district where they went to vote, all the Republican voters said that they had already voted and they said, what the heck's going on? The local news reported on this. Larry, what do you do to overcome this mail-in ballot scheme, as I call it?”

Video file

Citation From the September 13, 2021, edition of Newsmax's Stinchfield

Write-ups from Breitbart and The Gateway Pundit also cited the KTLA story, with the articles also repeatedly asserting that only Republican voters had been the targets of such a scheme. Breitbart buried the county’s explanation at the bottom of the piece — while Gateway Pundit did not include it at all, instead declaring: “The fix is in.”

The story has also been spread on social media, including on Facebook. Breitbart proclaimed: “IT BEGINS: Some self-identified Republicans claim they arrived at their polling center to cast their ballots in the California recall election only to be told they had ‘already voted.’” Prominent right wing actors like One America NewsRon Watkins, Chuck Callesto, Bill Mitchell, Lin WoodRed StateCandace Owens, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tim Pool, Dave RubinQAnon show Matrixxx Grooove, and Scott Baio also sensationalized this report to suggest or outright claim widespread election fraud.

Podcast host Steven Crowder, another failed 2020 election conspiracy theorist, picked up the KTLA report and sarcastically remarked: “Nothing to see here!” (And for once, he’s almost gotten it right — because there really is nothing to see here.)