Editor’s note: This is the first column produced by a new collaboration between The Seattle Times Save the Free Press initiative and the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. The initiative is ultimately about keeping Americans informed and sustaining democracy, and the center is a great resource in this effort. Look for monthly columns with advice and insights on identifying misinformation, finding factual information and what’s being done to promote healthy civic discourse.

Looking back on the 2020 U.S. elections, one thing those who study voting-related rumors, mis- and disinformation observed was how unsurprising much of it was. Many narratives were built on things that could have been anticipated because they have happened before. While some informational elements may be novel, the core “tropes” they’re built around are, in some cases, decades old. 

The public needs to know how these tropes can exaggerate and distort what’s happening during elections.  

As a research scientist who studies and analyzes how election rumors, mis- and disinformation take root, gain traction and spread online, there’s a lot I’ll be tracking in the upcoming weeks. While there are other tropes likely to emerge closer to or on Election Day itself, in the next few weeks, expect lingering confusion around absentee ballot request forms, ballot-printing errors and other good-faith errors election administrators will work to fix, and mail-theft incidents reframed around allegations of voter fraud.  

In many states that don’t use universal vote-by-mail balloting, something Oregon and Washington pioneered more than a decade ago, the process to request absentee ballot forms can create confusion. Absentee ballot-request processes started in many states in September and with that, a combination of government entities and advocacy groups send out ballot-request applications to educate people about the process and encourage voter participation.

For many, this outreach will spark confusion. In 2020, in our work at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, a nonpartisan research center where we track rumors, conspiracies and mis- and disinformation, we saw, for instance, people on social media puzzled around why they had been sent multiple applications, using language that suggested they had confused the outreach and request materials with actual ballots. In other instances, people noted they were receiving ballot requests for voters who no longer lived at the address, or for people who were not qualified to vote. Still others, getting a ballot request form wrapped in promotional material for then-President Donald Trump, interpreted this to be electioneering by their state government.

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Such framing, often using such tactics as “just asking questions,” will imply this is evidence of the ease of illegal voting, or in some cases, direct evidence of nefarious schemes.

As real ballots arrive, there will be a predictable amount of error: both in printing and delivery. As ballot proofs for the general election are published, printing errors will become the subject of conspiracy theories. 

Some of those errors will be significant, of course, and election administrators will work to correct them. But some people will point to them as evidence of deep schemes to manipulate and sway elections. Researchers will be tracking how these errors are woven into conspiracy theories. 

Other voting-related rumors involve the details of the ballot itself. Does your ballot seem too thin? Too thick? Is your favored candidate on a fold, or not on a fold? Was your ballot envelope slightly damaged? Any small ballot detail can be, unfortunately, turned into a conspiracy theory with a bit of work.

What I’ve found in looking at election- and voting-related rumors, mis- and disinformation, it’s very often not the case that someone notices a damaging printing error or disturbing detail, but rather someone notices errors or details and then works to build a theory of why it might be damaging or slanted to one side or another. Beware of any rumor that seems to embrace such post hoc reasoning about a detail you never thought about before. Such concerns aren’t always wrong, but their track record is not great. 

Mail thefts happen quite regularly, and are usually tied to identity theft — people trying to get checks or credit card applications they can use.

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Yet, as mail-in ballots go out, various thefts will be presented as election-related. The premise will be that the folks stealing mail are going after blank ballots they can use to somehow fill out and use or sell.

These three themes are only a selection of the sorts of claims we see in the early-voting period, but even with this selection, a general pattern is clear. Election rumor often begins with something noticed — an error, a detail, an event — followed by the creation of an explanation of why that something is part of a larger conspiracy, rather than error, misconduct unrelated to elections, or in a lot of cases just a misunderstood procedure. And this sort of rumoring can be regrettable for a few reasons. The most common reason given is that such rumors undermine faith in our elections. And that’s absolutely true. But there’s another side to the problem — the seeds of the rumors often have important elements that need to be addressed. People should be aware of mail-theft, and take steps to minimize their risks. When ballot errors happen, citizens should absolutely get those errors addressed. And, at least in my opinion, if states allow third parties to send ballot-request forms there should be standards in place to make the fact they are not ballots and not from the state as clear as possible. 

Underneath a lot of election rumor is a real problem to be fixed or confusion to be sorted out. Occasionally, there is even real malfeasance. But the move to grander, unsubstantiated claims takes us away from solving real problems at hand, instead pushing us to address phantom concerns. This distraction in turn makes elections less secure and us less informed. Maybe you will see one of the three claims above in the coming weeks, or maybe you’ll see one of dozens of others. If you do, choose to seek answers and enrich the conversation rather than reflexively amplifying confusion and baseless speculation. Moving to the former and away from the latter won’t just help people form more accurate perceptions about electoral legitimacy: it will help make our elections more secure as well.