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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State University launches initiative to combat election misinformation

Police officers, elections workers and media members outside the Spokane County elections office Wednesday.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

In an era of rampant misinformation, Washington State University’s public policy institute announced it has launched an initiative to promote election integrity and civic engagement.

A national rise in conspiracy theories surrounding elections and threats to poll workers – including suspicious envelopes sent last week to elections offices in at least four Washington counties – have spurred fear that the 2024 U.S. presidential election could mean trouble. Evacuations at elections offices around the state disproved experts’ predictions that local elections this year would be relatively calm.

The university’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service will host educational events and collaborate with the Washington Office of the Secretary of State to support free and fair elections. The institute will also work to encourage people to sign up to volunteer at elections offices – places burdened by high turnover due to safety concerns.

Experts are worried there won’t be enough poll workers for the 2024 election, Foley Institute director Cornell Clayton said.

“There’s been a dramatic increase in the threats and incidences of violence at polling stations and elections offices over the last four years,” Clayton said. “The vast majority of poll workers are just volunteers – they tend to be elderly women. They go to these polling stations and they find themselves being accosted and threatened.”

In the United States, nearly 1 in 3 local election officials knows at least one election worker who has left the job due to safety concerns, increased threats or intimidation, according to a 2022 study by the Brennan Center for Justice.

“Most of the concern is coming from the political right in this country,” Clayton said. “That’s because our former president has engaged in this effort to undermine our elections.”

Clayton said he plans to set up a program in which interns at the Foley Institute volunteer to work in local elections offices. The public policy may ask people who run for office to make public pledges that they’ll abide by election outcomes.

“It is just critical that our political leaders, candidates for office and others try to reassure the public that our elections are safe and secure,” Clayton said. “And not engage in conspiracy theorizing about elections and elections integrity. … We want to see them restore that really venerable tradition of the concession speech.”

Next spring, the Foley Institute plans to partner with WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication to put on a symposium about the use of artificial intelligence in election campaigns. Clayton said the institute will likely vet and compile a landing page with verified information about elections.

Western States Center extremist expert and program manager Kate Bitz said many people in the country have left public service positions such as school board, library board, public health and poll workers.

“I think it’s incredibly important for the government, nonprofits and educational institutions to think: ‘How do we build up a support system that keeps people in these positions who have the skills and knowledge to be there?’ ” Bitz said.

Bitz added she thinks WSU’s free and fair elections initiative is important work, and it gives her hope that a new generation of civically engaged people will emerge.

“It’s important for people to both know how our system works, in order to participate in it as voters,” Bitz said, “and also to know that there are ways we can all get involved in protecting our elections.”