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While conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election are waning, they’re still shaping policies about election administration in many parts of the country.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the Republican elections official who blocked one of former President Donald Trump’s most brazen attempts to undermine the 2020 election, told reporters last week that the “tide is going out” on conspiracy theories regarding the last presidential election.
Trump backed candidates for election last year who falsely claimed that he, rather than President Joe Biden, won the 2020 contest. But most election deniers who ran for statewide offices in competitive states last year lost, Raffensperger said, and Republican voters in many places have moved on.
“The election denier myth, the election denier way of going at politics isn’t effective. They’re losing,” he said at a conference at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. “And eventually they’re going to realize they’re going to get so tired of losing that they find a strategy that works. And that’s engaging voters being voter centric.”
Raffensperger pointed to his own reelection last year. Trump unsuccessfully tried to unseat him and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, another Republican who rebuked Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. “We stood up, and we pushed back. We engaged [voters], and we moved past that,” Raffensperger said.
But election disinformation remains a problem in many places, even after the 2022 losses by election deniers and after Fox News agreed to pay $787.5 million to Dominion Voting Systems because of disinformation the media company spread about the election.
“I did a town hall about six weeks ago in Phoenix, Arizona, and [listening to] the people that they brought in, I thought I was living in November 15, 2020,” Raffensperger said.
The ongoing effect of election conspiracy theories seems to vary significantly from state to state. Rhode Island Secretary of State Gregg Amore, a Democrat, for example, was encouraged to find during his first few months on the job that residents there have confidence in the elections system, said Faith Chybowski, Amore’s director of communications. But Amore still worries that false information about elections could take hold in the months to come, she added.
“While he believes misinformation and election denialism is still one of the greatest threats to our nation, he agrees that these false claims have been sufficiently disproved. Despite this progress, Secretary Amore feels it is critical we remain vigilant in combating misinformation, especially as we enter the next presidential election cycle,” Chybowski said in an email.
Indeed, there have been several instances of disinformation campaigns disrupting election administrations.
The issue has been especially salient in Texas. Heider Garcia resigned his post as elections director in Tarrant County in the Fort Worth area in mid-April, following the election of a county executive who blamed Trump losing the county in 2020 on “Democrats cheating.”
“My formula to ‘administer a quality election’ stands on respect and zero politics; compromising on these values is not an option for me,” Garcia wrote to newly installed County Judge Tim O’Hare. “You made it clear in our last meeting that your formula was different, thus, my decision to leave.”
Meanwhile, Texas administrators are grappling with how to comply with—or change—a 2021 law that would essentially outlaw all the voting machines in the state, and require the replacement of every machine each election. A provision in the law, that goes into effect for the 2026 election, prohibits reusable data storage devices that are needed for ballot scanners and tabulators. The sponsors said they added the measure to prevent voting data from being manipulated, but they provided no evidence of that kind of tampering.
In Shasta County, California, the Republican-led board of supervisors decided in January to cancel its contract with Dominion and move to hand counting of ballots instead. The move could cost the northern California county an extra $3 million over two years, a significant expense in a county already facing budget pressures.
Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen, a Democrat, said abandoning voting machines would be unprecedented in California. “The development and implementation of such an entirely new, untested, unproven program would be extremely difficult. It would require the county to develop policies and processes from the ground up to allow for all the complexities of ballot processing and tally,” she wrote to the supervisors in March. The county would have to hire 1,200 people to process the returns and rent a large building for the counting, she added.
At the Chicago event, Raffensperger referred to the move by Shasta County and called it “the unfortunate outcome of that huge disinformation campaign.”
“People say they want to get rid of machines,” he said. “They talk about how they want people to be able to vote with hand-marked paper ballots, but their endgame is actually they want hand-counted [ballots]. The problem with hand counting is it’s somewhat slower, and it’s not as accurate.”
The Georgia secretary of state also defended a multistate election information clearinghouse that was built to help states keep their voter rolls up to date, even as several Republican-led states have withdrawn from it. At least seven states—Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia—have left the organization, and others may soon follow.
They have cited many reasons, including governance and privacy concerns. But Trump and conservative activists have targeted the bipartisan group with baseless allegations that the group is designed to help liberals.
Raffensperger called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) “the best way” to help states keep their information on voters accurate, especially for people who move from state to state.
The Georgia official, though, said the country’s electoral system had come a long way from the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which raised widespread concerns about the mechanics of elections administration around the country.
“Over 95% of ballots cast in America right now have a verified paper ballot, so you can do a 100% hand recount of the [elections for] county commissioner, state rep or the president of the United States and find out exactly what that is,” he said. “When you have a paper ballot, you can do risk-limiting audits. So from that standpoint, it’s really good. You have an organization like ERIC, so you can update your voter rolls objectively.”
“I feel really good about the process,” he added. “The biggest issue really is the disinformation. It's the candidates and their consultants … who don’t want to admit that their candidate lost, because that means [they’re] a bad consultant or candidate.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.