Fast-forward just under a year from today. Washington will be choosing its new governor, while the country will be picking the president.
Much is at stake on this year’s Nov. 7 ballot full of local elections. A high-profile mayoral race, a proposition that would criminalize encampments in much of Spokane and the most expensive school board contest in the state, just to name a few.
But experts and officials say they expect Election Day 2023 to look relatively calm compared to Election Day 2024, which they worry could bring turmoil, both locally and nationally. Upticks in misinformation about elections, social media use and turnover in elections offices all pose challenges to the U.S. election system.
“We’ve seen fewer incidents generally,” said Devin Burghart, the executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, “ … compared to on-year elections.”
Election misinformation tactics should be sorted into two categories, Burghart said. The first is directly related to candidates or issues – “attempting to inundate voters with false information.” The second category is misinformation about elections themselves, an issue Burghart said often gets lost.
“We’re increasingly worried about efforts to deter people from going to the polls by giving them incorrect information about how they can vote … telling people they can vote online, or by text messages,” Burghart said.
Claims by former President Donald Trump that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and a polarizing pandemic that year paved the way for misinformation and conspiracy theory during future presidential election years, Burghart said,
In 2020, elections poll workers in Atlanta, Georgia, reported they faced harassment and threats that forced some of them to leave their jobs following Trump’s claims that the election was rigged.
Nationally, elections offices have been plagued with high turnover due to burnout and safety concerns.
Nearly one in three local election officials knows at least one election worker who has left the job, partly due to safety concerns, increased threats or intimidation, according to a 2022 study by the Brennan Center for Justice.
In its study, the policy and law nonprofit interviewed nearly 600 local election officials from all political affiliations across the country. More than 75% of those surveyed reported threats against local election officials have increased in recent years. Nearly 2 in 3 local election officials believe false information makes their jobs more dangerous, the study found. And more than 75% of local election officials reportedly believe social media companies have not done enough to stop the spread of false information.
Experts say they’re most worried about one period of time in the elections process: the window between when polls close on election day and the release of unofficial results.
In 2020, for example, that window of time was a couple days.
“It was in that period that we started to see mistruths about the election spread like wildfire,” said Rachel Orey, an elections director with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Because candidates were capitalizing on the uncertainty to pre-emptively claim victory and sow doubt. This idea of, ‘Oh, well why are results taking so long? If the process were secure, we would already know by now.’ ”
Orey and the Bipartisan Policy Center are most concerned about that window looking toward 2024. The not-for-profit organization is urging voters to be patient and refrain from expecting results on Election Day.
“Try and think of it as election week,” Orey said.
Misinformation about local elections processes continues to spread, Orey said, including false claims that mail-in voting systems are corrupt and calls for hand-counted elections results.
“If you’ve ever gotten a bunch of humans in a room together and tried to have them count thousands of pieces of paper, it’s not the most accurate process in the world,” Orey said. “The machines are built to do these kinds of routine tasks over and over again with a really high degree of accuracy.”
Orey expects to see more misinformation in the 2024 election.
“Off-year elections – just because they have less national attention – tend to go smoother,” Orey said.
Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs said much of the public does not realize they can go to their local county auditor’s office and observe the election process. And the state election’s agency has technology to flag and prevent the same people from voting repeatedly – a commonly circulated claim among conspiracy theorists. The Secretary of State’s office also gets alerted when voters die or move out-of-state, Hobbs said.
“When you have all the stuff that happened in 2020, and you don’t have any base of information or facts behind it to refute it, then that’s what’s gonna take hold,” Hobbs said in an interview with Spokesman-Review reporters in September. “So now, we’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle, which is really hard to do. And combat misinformation with the truth.”
For a couple years, Hobbs has been trying to pass a law through the state Legislature to protect election workers, making it a Class C felony to harass election officials. The bill picked up overwhelming support in the state House of Representatives earlier this year but died in the Senate. Hobbs said he intends to push for the bill again next year.
“Everything from doxxing to social media threats all the way to straight-up death threats,” Hobbs said. “You get this wide range of threats and pressure being applied to people who just want to do their job.”
Elections officials in vote-by-mail states must be thoroughly trained in a wider variety of tasks than for poll-only states, Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said.
“We need people to understand how to handle mail, to evaluate ballots for damage, to be able to compare signatures, which they don’t do at poll sites,” Dalton said. “It’s really a very different set of skills.”
There are currently six full-time employees with Spokane County elections and 140 part-time workers. Dalton said finding workers in the county has gone well, thanks to involved recruitment efforts.
“We like to hire retired postal employees,” she said. “They are people who know how to handle mail, and they know how to work hard.”
Dalton said the auditor’s office always encourages staff to pay attention to their surroundings, particularly when they’re out picking up ballots from drop boxes. While Dalton’s been an auditor, she said no election workers have had to call 911, but there have been calls about suspicious people around drop boxes.
Dalton wanted to assure voters that boxes are a safe and secure place to drop ballots locally. They’re located in highly trafficked areas outside libraries and city halls in Spokane County, she said, and elections officials empty them frequently.