Right-wing media seize on flimsy voter fraud stories to spread misinformation
Conservative media — desperate to propagate the myth of widespread voter fraud — are publicizing and distorting local stories to fearmonger about mail-in voting, regardless of whether the original reporting holds up.
As Election Day approaches, right-wing media have been promoting a steady drumbeat of local stories that are supposedly indicative of a national voter fraud crisis. But when examined more closely, these stories often fall apart or otherwise fail to reflect the type of rampant fraud right-wing media figures claim exists.
Coverage of these stories often follows a predictable pattern. Reporting by local outlets, with or without proper context, is written up by conservative publications and shared on Twitter before making its way to Fox News -- and even to the presidential debate stage. Occasionally, as President Donald Trump's administration recently demonstrated, the information comes from the other direction, with White House officials helping to spread these dubious claims from the top down.
In each case, the end goal of this conservative misinformation is clear — to undermine faith in elections through outsized and unwarranted media attention.
During the past month, four such local stories — some which took place in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — received national attention. But in all four cases, the reality on the ground tells a different story than what right-wing media outlets implied.
Right-wing media are distorting local reporting, some of which was later proven inaccurate, to advance baseless claims of widespread election fraud
On September 23, Wisconsin Fox affiliate WLUK published a short report on three trays of mail found in a ditch. The mail supposedly included absentee ballots, according to a Postal Service spokesperson.
That same day, conservative websites including The Gateway Pundit, Washington Examiner, and Breitbart published their own stories on the incident, citing WLUK — but specifically hyping the supposed existence of absentee ballots in their headlines, unlike WLUK, and suggesting the story was emblematic of widespread theft and fraud by the Postal Service. On Twitter, Trump adviser Jason Miller tweeted a link to the Washington Examiner story, while polling group Rasmussen Reports linked to The Gateway Pundit writeup. And after White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany brought up the incident in a press briefing on September 24, Fox News host Tucker Carlson promoted the story in a segment on voter fraud that night.
Finally, during last week’s presidential debate, Trump mentioned ballots being found in a “creek or a river,” which McEnany later clarified was a reference to the incident in Wisconsin.
In fact, the story collapsed when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on October 1 that the lost mail reported by WLUK did not include absentee ballots from Wisconsin, according to an update from the state election commission.
Another story of supposed election fraud mentioned by Trump on the debate stage also recently fell apart after receiving a flurry of coverage by conservative media.
Trump himself set the right-wing media coverage of this story in motion -- this time involving mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. After being briefed by Attorney General Bill Barr, Trump appeared on Fox host Brian Kilmeade’s radio show on September 24, where he mentioned that several military mail-in ballots cast for him were found in a trashcan.
A press release by the Department of Justice further elaborated on Trump’s claims, first mentioning that nine ballots cast for Trump were found in the trash in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. The number of discarded ballots supposedly cast for Trump was then reduced to seven in a revised press release after it was determined that two ballots had been resealed. The fact that the press releases mentioned who the votes were cast for at all seemed like an obvious attempt to suggest that Trump was the candidate being disadvantaged by this fraud, according to election experts.
These statements set off a flurry of coverage on Fox and elsewhere in right-wing media. But despite the nefarious implications suggested by Trump and the Justice Department, local officials later revealed that the ballots were mistakenly discarded by a temporary worker “who confused the envelopes with absentee ballot applications,” not as part of some anti-Trump plot. Yet even after this information became public, Fox hosts like Carlson and Laura Ingraham continued to point to the incident as a reason mail-in voting was not to be trusted.
Although right-wing media figures will do their best to spin any story related to supposed voter fraud, it is important for local reporters not to feed this narrative themselves through the framing of these stories.
For instance, a CBS affiliate in Colorado published a story on September 25 titled “Colorado Secretary Of State Mails Postcards To Non-Citizens, Dead People Urging Them To Vote.” Although the story has since been retracted, conservative media outlets instantly ran with this framing.
Breitbart and the Washington Examiner published stories based on the reporting from Colorado. On Twitter, Trump adviser Jenna Ellis tweeted a link to Breitbart’s article, and Donald Trump Jr. linked to the Colorado station’s original, since-deleted article. On Fox, Ingraham later cited the story during her show on October 1.
As Colorado ABC affiliate KMGH explained, the story “inaccurately claimed that a postcard sent to some people in Colorado asking them to vote ... used the voter-roll mailing list used to send ballots out and was urging people to illegally register to vote.” Conservative media figures promoted this narrative despite the fact that the mailings were actually urging people to register to vote, and the postcards “came from a different list than the one used to mail ballots to registered voters.” Moreover, the mailings that were inadvertently sent to people who were not legally eligible to vote also contained clear information about the requirements to register.
Despite the best efforts to properly contextualize these stories, right-wing media may still distort them. On September 24, NBC4 in Washington, D.C. noted that some voters in Fairfax County, Virginia, inadvertently received two mail-in ballots. The article noted that the mistake, which was attributed to a technical error, “does not present an opportunity for voter fraud” because a second ballot from any individual would be rejected by officials.
However, Breitbart published the story with this context stripped out to suggest it raises “further concerns about possible electoral fraud in the November election,” and the incident was mentioned on talk radio and Fox as well. Hans von Spakovsky, a longtime purveyor of manufactured voter fraud claims, appeared on a local D.C. talk radio program on September 29 and was asked about the Virginia story.
That night, Trump mentioned the incident during the debate, highlighting the pattern of election misinformation and false claims of voter fraud circulating between right-wing media and the president.