Your NPR news source
Wearing face masks and gloves, election judges process and count March 19 primary election mail-in ballots for the Chicago Board of Elections at the Cook County Administration Building in the Loop.

Election judges process and count March 19 primary election mail-in ballots for the Chicago Board of Elections at the Cook County Administration Building in the Loop.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Misinformation is a 'real danger to our democracy.' What can election boards do about it?

As the 2024 presidential election approaches, officials, advocates and experts have expressed concern over misinformation and disinformation about candidates and elections in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois.

When a spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners accidentally misreported mail-in ballot numbers during the Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney this spring, the online backlash was swift and harsh.

Max Bever, who has worked for the Chicago elections board since 2021, says he was “harassed for nearly three weeks straight,” even after he corrected the error.

His mistake fueled conspiracy theories about election security. And people commenting on social media left nasty remarks even on photos of his cat, he says.

The incident highlighted how difficult it can be to “put the genie back in the bottle” after a piece of misinformation has been published, Bever says.

Max Bever, the Chicago Board of Elections's director of public information, spins a wheel to determine the order of mayoral candidates’ names on the ballot during the ballot-placement lottery for the 2023 Chicago elections.

Max Bever, the Chicago Board of Elections’s director of public information, spins a wheel to determine the order of mayoral candidates’ names on the ballot during the ballot-placement lottery for the 2023 Chicago elections.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

As the 2024 presidential election approaches, there are concerns over misinformation and disinformation about candidates and elections in Chicago and the rest of Illinois, according to officials, advocates and experts interviewed as part of the Democracy Solutions Project, a series of reports by the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ and the University of Chicago that’s examining challenges facing American democracy.

“I think it’s a real danger to our democracy that we won’t have a very well informed citizenry going to the polls,” says Barbara Laimins, co-chair of a task force on misinformation and disinformation for the League of Women Voters of Illinois.

The Democracy Solutions Project
The Democracy Solutions Project

The problem:

As the 2024 presidential election approaches, concern is growing over misinformation and disinformation about candidates and elections in Chicago, Cook County and the rest of Illinois.

Possible solutions:

Building “information literacy” is crucial in minimizing the impact of misinformation and disinformation in elections. That includes teaching people how to verify the information they see online and where to go for reliable information.

“Deepfake” images and recordings can create convincing — but false — photos or audio clips with the potential to drive conspiracy theories and misinformation. Election workers can be trained to recognize AI-generated deepfakes.

Misinformation is false information that might or might not be published with an intention to deceive. Disinformation is a more insidious form of false information, meant to mislead people. Both misinformation and disinformation can pose threats to elections.

Officials with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, the Cook County clerk’s office and the Illinois State Board of Elections have encouraged voters to vet information they see online and turn to trusted sources for election information.

Ed Michalowski, Cook County’s deputy clerk of elections, says Illinois doesn’t face the level of misinformation about elections seen in swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But it’s still out there, he says, typically spread over social media.

Election workers, mail-in ballots targets

A common type of misinformation has to do with election workers and their political affiliations or agendas — accusations, for instance, that some of them secretly work at the behest of one of the country’s two major parties, Michalowski says.

Last year, two election workers from Georgia won a $148 million settlement in a defamation suit against Rudy Giuliani. The two women were harassed and threatened after false information spread about them during the 2020 presidential election.

Former Donald Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Former Donald Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

AP

Election officials say there’s also a strong lack of trust in the vote-by-mail process, with some voters concerned that their ballots won’t be counted if they vote by mail.

“Any time you put something in the mail, you’re taking a little bit of a leap of faith that it’s going to get there,” Michalowski says. “And we find that it gets there.”

Matt Dietrich, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Elections, says there has been misinformation and disinformation in Illinois over even the color of the ink used on mail-in ballots.

In 2020, claims circulated in social media that mail-in ballots would be counted only if they used red or green ink. But Dietrich says that’s wrong — mail-in ballots should be cast in blue or black ink.

In another example Dietrich cites, a couple in downstate Fayette County posted a photo in 2020 of five mail-in ballot applications they received at the same address. The couple said that, as two people, they would be able to cast five votes.

He says such a scheme wouldn’t work, though, because election officials mail ballots to voters only after they verify that the signature appearing on the application matches the signature the election board has on record for that voter.

Dietrich says the Illinois State Board of Elections used its social media accounts to point out that voting five times is voter fraud, a felony. The board contacted Facebook to get the post taken down.

In Wilmette, misinformation and disinformation about library and school board elections has surfaced on social media platforms like Nextdoor and Facebook, according to Anne Sullivan, who co-chairs the League of Women Voters of Illinois’ misinformation and disinformation task force with Laimins. Those posts prompted her to create the task force last November.

“It’s very insidious because it’s very subtle,” Sullivan says. “It’s feeding distrust on social media.”

Laimins says that, while working as an election judge, she heard people say they would vote only on a paper ballot because they didn’t trust voting machines.

Last year, Dominion Voting Systems won a $787 million settlement in a lawsuit against Fox News after the network made false claims that Dominion’s voting machines were part of a scheme to steal the 2020 election from former President Donald Trump.

In this Sept. 16, 2019,  photo, a Dominion Voting Systems voting machine is seen in Atlanta.

In this Sept. 16, 2019, photo, a Dominion Voting Systems voting machine is seen in Atlanta.

AP

Dietrich says he has heard concerns about voting machines but assures voters that machines are not connected to the internet and therefore cannot be hacked.

Check information before reposting

Building “information literacy” is crucial in minimizing the impact of misinformation and disinformation in elections, says Zachary McDowell, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago who studies information and media.

That includes teaching people how to verify the information they see online and where to go for reliable information. McDowell encourages people to seek information written that’s presented in a “neutral” voice, rather than something that seems intended to provoke a strong emotional reaction.

McDowell says the the loss of newspapers across the country has made it more difficult for voters to find reliable, fact-checked information about their elections.

Laimins sees the role of the task force she and Sullivan lead as “inoculating people against disinformation,” rather than eradicating it. The task force provides free webinars on topics related to media literacy and misinformation. A May 22 webinar with Michael Spikes, a Northwestern University professor who specializes in news media literacy, will provide insight into how to recognize misinformation and disinformation.

Acting against misinformation is limited

The Illinois State Board of Elections did not see any instances of misinformation during the primary, Dietrich says: “In the elections since 2016, we have not had an abundance of these kinds of malicious posts.”

The board can take action against misinformation only if it involves selection processes, Dietrich says. So it wouldn’t be able to do anything regarding false claims about a candidate’s record or positions.

Last month, the Illinois State Board of Elections called on Attorney General Kwame Raoul to take action against “fake newspapers” in Cook County, the Sun-Times reported. Local Government Information Services, which publishes the papers, has been accused of deliberately spreading disinformation.

Raoul’s legal move against LGIS accused the company of publishing voters’ information and voting histories — personal data that could subject voters across Illinois to identity theft. The company agreed to abide by a Lake County judge’s order earlier this month to removed the sensitive information from its nearly three dozen online platforms.

LGIS was incorporated in Illinois in 2016 and was owned then at least in part by Dan Proft, a Florida political strategist who once ran as a Republican candidate for Illinois governor, according to Raoul’s complaint.

Bever says social media platforms often are slow to take down posts containing misinformation. Under the federal Communications Decency Act, social media providers aren’t considered responsible for the content published by their users. So platforms often fail to take down posts containing misleading or false information.

Social media algorithms can amplify misinformation, McDowell says. Platforms like Facebook often reward inflammatory content — whether it’s true or not — because it drives users to like, comment or repost, he says.

AI sparks new concerns

Evolving artificial intelligence technologies also have raised concerns about new avenues for creating and disseminating false information. “Deepfake” images and recordings can create convincing — but false — photos or audio clips with the potential to drive conspiracy theories and misinformation.

In Arizona, election workers have been trained to recognize AI-generated deepfakes. During New Hampshire’s primaries in January, an AI-generated phone call that sounded like President Joe Biden urged voters not to cast a ballot in the primary.

Laimins’ task force plans webinars about how to recognize AI-generated misinformation and disinformation. “We know that’s going to be a significant influx into the political landscape going into the fall in an election season,” Laimins says.

Dietrich says AI-generated misinformation is difficult for the Illinois State Board of Elections to regulate. He says the board doesn’t have the resources to identify AI or the authority to crack down on it. Over the past week, the agency’s account on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, put out a post advising voters to be on the lookout for deepfakes.

Despite these concerns, Michalowski and other officials say they’re confident they will be able to limit the impact of misinformation and disinformation this fall.

“After conducting an election in COVID that went smoothly, all things considered, we feel we can handle the misinformation that’s going to come in 2024,” Michalowski says.

The Democracy Solutions Project is a collaboration among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center. Our goal is to help our community of readers and listeners engage with the democratic functions in their lives and cast an informed ballot in November’s election.

The Latest
While Pritzker has emphatically expressed his support of Biden, he’s also not quashed the narrative that he has White House ambitions.
The decision comes after escalating pressure from Biden’s Democratic allies to step aside following the June 27 debate, in which the 81-year-old president trailed off, often gave nonsensical answers and failed to call out Donald Trump’s many falsehoods.
Residents and members of social justice groups join civil rights groups and the city watchdog in calling on the Office of the Inspector General to investigate the officers named in a probe into extremist groups.
Two homeowners with past-due water bills are Chicago City Council members, a Sun-Times investigation found. Two more of their colleagues paid up only after Sun-Times reporters asked about their overdue bills.
Northwestern College and the American Academy of Art College shut down this month, leaving hundreds of students in the lurch.