How Conservative Media Shapes American Democracy Online

Mail-in Ballot, voter fraud
Reading Time: 3 minutesProtecting Out Vote 2020

The power of the press has always been a force to reckon with, but with the rise of social media, a simple tweet can spark a feeding frenzy of disinformation.

Millions of Americans are expected to cast mail-in ballots this November, but a flurry of conservative media personalities took to Twitter last week to raise the alarm after US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) filed voter fraud charges against a grand total of 19 noncitizens who allegedly voted illegally during the 2016 presidential election in North Carolina. The media frenzy treated these 19 cases as proof that voting by mail encourages fraud. 

The results of the investigation, which took ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) more than a year to carry out, were announced by ICE in a tweet on Thursday. Nineteen individuals had previously been charged in 2018, bringing the number to 38 people in total who have been charged with illegally voting since the joint investigation began. Those votes represented roughly 0.0008 percent of the 4 million total votes cast in North Carolina during the 2016 election.

A seemingly endless succession of conservative media personalities and political leaders hit the airwaves as soon as the charges were announced, claiming that, despite evidence to the contrary, widespread voter fraud actually does exist.

“Remember, Democrats tell you voter fraud is a conspiracy theory,” tweeted Newsmax’s John Cardillo.

“Fact: Illegal aliens are voting. Fact: In #NorthCarolina, 19 of them now face federal charges,” Michael Johns, co-founder of the National Tea Party movement, tweeted with the hashtag #BuildTheWall. 

“Wait I thought the Democrats told us voter fraud was a lie…..” Tomi Lahren, a Fox Nation host, tweeted.

Several conservative radio hosts also chimed in. American Family Radio’s Bryan Fischer claimed — without offering any evidence — that the case in North Carolina proved that voter fraud in Virginia exists, while Howie Carr, who rallied for Trump in 2016, insinuated that the 19 people charged on Thursday were “Dreamers in the news.” Dreamers are people that came illegally to the United States as young children and are allowed to stay so long as they do not commit any serious crimes.

The announcement by ICE, and subsequent reactions from right-wing media figures, eventually reached conservative lawmakers who repeated similar talking points. 

“Good work from @ICEgov to protect the integrity of our elections,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) tweeted. “These aliens would be subject to the deportation trigger under my recently introduced legislation, the Voter Integrity Protection Act.”

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) claimed that more instances of voter fraud would happen if states continue to expand access to mail-in voting because “there will be no way to verify who is sending in the ballot.”

The impact of the media on Washington is not a new phenomenon. One study by Vanderbilt University found that lawmakers “anticipated and adjusted their voting behavior to match potential changes in their constituents’ ideological beliefs” if they were Fox News viewers during the 1990s.

No, Voting by Mail Is Not ‘Ripe for Voter Fraud’

Several reports by DHS have indicated that ongoing efforts by foreign adversaries to undermine faith in mail-in voting during the upcoming presidential election are an even greater concern because those operations are happening now and at a wide scale. Meanwhile, the rate of voter fraud during any given election is roughly 0.0025 percent. Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf appears to have focused more of his attention on the latter.

“American voters must decide American elections. Period,” Wolf tweeted. “This administration is working to combat voter fraud to make sure they do.”

The investigation in North Carolina, a state that President Donald Trump won by 173,315 votes in 2016, seemingly stemmed from him never accepting the fact that he won the 2016 election without also winning the popular vote.

“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted in 2016.

Trump vowed to launch “a major investigation into voter fraud” upon taking office. He went so far to establish a task force that sought to root out widespread fraud and expose states that allowed it. Despite their best efforts, members of Trump’s voter fraud task force did not find evidence of widespread voter fraud and disbanded after a year of searching for it.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from ICE and ICE / Wikimedia.

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