Griswold warns of election disinformation threat in congressional testimony

Secretary of state says social media companies ‘should no longer be shielded from accountability’

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold testifies remotely Oct. 6, 2020, during a U.S. House Subcommittee on Elections hearing. (screenshot)

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold on Tuesday urged members of Congress to take action to protect against the threat of disinformation aimed at undermining the integrity of the 2020 election.

“When voters doubt the process, they are less likely to participate, which weakens the very nature of our democracy,” Griswold said in virtual testimony before a House of Representatives elections subcommittee. “The biggest threat facing our democracy right now is Americans losing faith that it works.”

Griswold pointed to recent warnings from federal intelligence agencies that foreign actors, including Russia, are working to “undermine confidence in election results” through a variety of online disinformation tactics, including creating websites with fake results and sowing doubt about balloting processes through social media.

President Donald Trump, too, has repeatedly made baseless claims that the use of mail-in ballots, like those cast by the vast majority of Coloradans, will lead to a “rigged” election. Colorado Republicans, including state party chair Rep. Ken Buck, have recently seized on a misleading and since-retracted story about an informational postcard sent by Griswold’s office, falsely describing the mailers as “efforts to register individuals who are ineligible to vote.”

Griswold called on Congress to take a series of steps to safeguard the integrity of U.S. elections, including collaborating with state elections officials and appropriating funds to strengthen cybersecurity efforts. She also called for the repeal of a provision in federal communications law known as Section 230, which prevents social-media companies from being held liable for content posted by individual users.

“They should no longer be shielded from accountability,” Griswold said. “While social media can be a tool for good, adversaries can also use it to their advantage with precision never seen before.”

Elections Subcommittee chair Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio, began the hearing by echoing recent warnings from Democratic officials, academics and elections watchdogs that an expected surge in mail-in voting in this year’s election may lead to ballot-counting delays in certain states, potentially preventing final results from being known until well after election night.

“The American people must be prepared that we may not know the winner of the election on the night of Nov. 3, and that this does not mean anything is wrong with the election,” Fudge said. “The count must be accurate, and that takes time.”

Griswold apologized last week after posting a tweet in which she urged media outlets not to announce results on election night. She said in a statement that she had intended “to draw attention to the fact that other states are drastically adopting new voting procedures, and it is critically important that these changes be taken into account in election night reporting.”

While testifying before the House elections panel Tuesday, Griswold also agreed with Democratic members of Congress who expressed concern that misinformation has heightened the risk of voter intimidation and violence during and after the election. She denounced comments by Trump in last week’s presidential debate in which the president told an extremist group to “stand by.”

  Every American deserves to have a mail ballot, access to early voting, online voter registration and same-day voter registration, just like Coloradans.   -Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold

“Those comments about the Proud Boys have real effect,” Griswold said. “When you have the leader of the free world calling on neo-Nazis in the election process, that is voter suppression. When you have the president calling on law enforcement, which is a tactic straight out of the Jim Crow South, that is voter suppression.”

“I hope we continue a conversation after November about what it means to be an American citizen, and what access an American citizen has,” Griswold added. “In Colorado, we have accessible elections. Every American deserves to have a mail ballot, access to early voting, online voter registration and same-day voter registration, just like Coloradans, to truly realize what it means to be a citizen in this country.”