The tagline of Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s new initiative against election misinformation is “Opinions are fun. Facts are better.”
The sentiment is true only if your interest is democracy and electoral integrity. If your sole interest is power, facts are irrelevant, opinions are weapons. Power seekers in the run-up to the 2020 election seem to be gaining the advantage in their battle against democracy, and that’s why any effort to defend the legitimacy of the Nov. 3 vote is welcome.
But Griswold’s initiative is incomplete. It doesn’t contain misinformation, but it sure is missing information.
The thrust of the initiative is that U.S. elections are threatened by hostile state actors. “It’s happening, Colorado,” the initiative’s website says. “Foreign adversaries are trying to interfere with our elections and undermine confidence in the results. Don’t let them. It’s up to all of us to stay smart and aware.”
It’s true. Foreign adversaries are trying to interfere with our elections, as they long have. It’s well-established that Russia undertook an extensive, multifaceted campaign to disrupt the 2016 campaign and tip the scales in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump. On Wednesday, John Ratcliffe, the director of National Intelligence, announced that Russia and Iran have accessed information about U.S. voter registrations as part of election interference efforts, and Iran was accused of sending intimidating emails, purportedly from far-right group the Proud Boys, to Americans.
But what’s omitted from this story, and not explicitly mentioned in Griswold’s initiative, is that foreign efforts to undermine U.S. elections would be much less effective were it not for Republican complicity or amplification by domestic conservative sources. Moreover, conservative sources in Colorado and elsewhere are responsible for their own misinformation campaigns.
U.S. intelligence knew Russia was meddling in the 2016 presidential election and trying to damage the prospects of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. In September of that year, the Obama administration presented what it knew about Russian interference to congressional leaders and sought agreement that Americans should be warned. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, according to his own partisan calculations, pushed back not only on sharing the threat with Americans but also on the intelligence itself.
Trump toady Ratcliffe is hardly a trustworthy messenger. The former Republican representative had previously withdrawn from being considered for the DNI post after serious questions arose about his qualifications and the veracity of his resume. The announcement this week regarding election interference by Russia and Iran drew immediate criticism not just of the foreign adversaries but of Ratcliffe, who “has politicized his office by the selective release and declassification of some material that is designed to promote Donald Trump’s prospects for reelection,” according to former CIA director John Brennan, as quoted in the Washington Post.
Rep. Ken Buck and the Colorado GOP have engaged in their own misinformation efforts. Buck called on Attorney General William Barr to investigate Griswold over what Buck falsely claimed was an attempt by the secretary to register people who were ineligible to vote. The Colorado GOP has sent emails warning that Democrats are trying to steal the election, and Republican House Minority Leader Patrick Neville sent an email to supporters falsely accusing Democrats of “encouraging illegal aliens” to vote, according to the Denver Post.
Misinformation isn’t exclusive to, or always on behalf of, Republican or conservative sources and causes. Reports last week of voter intimidation at ballot drop boxes in Denver by men in tactical gear turned out likely to have been fabricated — an instance of apparently pro-left misinformation. But there is little doubt that misinformation flows more readily, widely and effectively from the right.
“Throughout the campaign season, Trump and other Republicans have promoted a false narrative of widespread voter fraud,” writes Emily Bazelon in The New York Times Magazine. Bazelon, in her piece “The First Amendment in the age of disinformation,” also cites a paper from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, which found that effective disinformation campaigns are often led by elites and mass media and that “Trump’s election put him in the position to operate directly through Fox News and other conservative media outlets … which have come to function ‘in effect as a party press.'”
This brings us to the second missing piece in Griswold’s initiative: The reputable press.
The secretary’s anti-misinformation website implores Coloradans to stick to the facts. Based on what viewers will find at the website, however, the only place to get those facts is the government. Constituents on both sides of the aisle will agree that any exclusive claim to truth by government officials is instantly suspicious.
The traditional media — meaning those nonpartisan news outlets that maintain standards of independence and accuracy and have established a record of reliability and error-correction — remains the best general source of independent election information. During the election season, The Denver Post, CPR, The Colorado Sun, Colorado Politics and other Colorado news outlets — including Newsline — have offered voters a detached, factual, responsible and timely account of election matters in a way the secretary never could. Colorado news outlets have reported in a professional manner about Buck’s reliance on a debunked story to make false allegations, and they’ve also held Griswold to account, such as in CPR’s reporting about county election officials who complain the secretary, a Democrat elected in a partisan race, has politicized her office. No anti-misinformation initiative is complete that fails to acknowledge reputable journalists as indispensable conduits of facts.
Misinformation is in many ways the single greatest threat to the election. Griswold is to be applauded for her attention to this danger, even if there are holes in her defense of a legitimate vote.