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‘The Best We Can Hope for Is To Nip Disinformation Rumors in the Bud’: CounterSpin interview with Steven Rosenfeld on election transparency

“The goal, really, was not to prove that Trump won, but it was to get on the news week after week and month after month…and just plant those seeds of doubt.”

Janine Jackson interviewed Voting Booth‘s Steven Rosenfeld about election transparency for the May 17, 2024, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


Trump Loyalists Preview Strategies to Upend 2024 Election

Voting Booth (5/9/24) has investigated Trump loyalists’ election denial strategies.

Janine Jackson: The Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump has proven surprisingly tenacious, perhaps, in part, because it is so big and vague, and perhaps, in part, due to a corporate press corps that are constitutionally incapable of saying sometimes there are not two sides with the truth in the middle. 

Based on the tenacity and the utility of that lie, Trumpists are continuing the work of undermining US electoral processes in the run up to the 2024 race. Besides saying, “Trump! Am I right?” is there more we might do to break through the disinformation and gird ourselves for similar future efforts? 

Steven Rosenfeld reports on transparency and other electoral issues for He joins us now by phone from California. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Steven Rosenfeld.

Steven Rosenfeld: Well, I’m delighted to be here. Thank you.

JJ: I want to ask you about the Election Education channel that you’ve written about, but first, just some context. Even if you don’t think anyone’s going to go back and say Trump actually won, there is a possibility of creating enough chaos, confusion and controversy around elections that people can say, “Well, I don’t know what went on, so I’ll believe who I want to believe.” Trumpists don’t have to convince you of the Big Lie if they sow enough doubt. That’s kind of the playing field we’re on.

SR: Well, that is true. If you think about what happened since 2020, there were 60-something lawsuits, election challenges filed after election day by Trump and his allies in the Republican party and other nonprofits that are aligned with Republicans. Courts, unlike state legislatures and political campaigns, actually have rules of evidence. You’re not allowed to lie in court. If you go into court and you present lies and you can’t back things up with evidence or facts that can be duplicated by somebody else, you’ll lose your law license, and that’s what’s happened with Rudy Giuliani and a whole bunch of others. 

But winning in the court of legal opinion is not the same as winning in the court of public opinion. So what’s happened since 2020 is these legislators in states like Arizona and other places have created these audits and these investigations where the goal, really, was not to prove that Trump won, but it was to get on the news week after week and month after month, especially on the television channels and the online platforms that are favored by the Trump supporters and right wingers, and just plant those seeds of doubt. 

Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld: “The goal, really, was not to prove that Trump won, but it was to get on the news week after week and month after month…and just plant those seeds of doubt.”

They have people on these channels and they talk about technical things that no one could understand, but people would just nod and go “Okay, okay,” and so what you ended up getting was you can win in court but lose in the court of public opinion. So these folks have basically been winning the propaganda war, and they’ve been doing it just as you said, by planting seeds of doubt and basically saying political tribal loyalties, “How could that possibly happen?” All this kind of stuff. And that’s brought us to today.

JJ: It’s a particular example, it’s not a sole example, but it is a kind of epicenter of this kind of thing: You looked at the Election Education channel on Telegram. Tell us a little about what that is and what they are up to that is currently and potentially meaningful.

SR: When I was on the floor of the Arizona recount, which was in an old basketball arena in Phoenix, this was run by the Cyber Ninjas, and the state senate in that state said we’re going to take possession of all the ballots in Maricopa County, which is, I forget, second or third largest jurisdiction in the country. So, 1.2 million ballots. They had a lot of volunteers come in who were basically patriotic citizens who thought, “My God, something went wrong. I gotta do something to help figure out what happened.” 

So a lot of these folks are emblematic of the grassroots wing of the “election integrity movement” or the pro-Trump part of the Republican party. They call themselves an election integrity movement. They went to other platforms like Parler and Telegram, and they stayed in touch there. 

Now, this is not the same as the people who have really tried to become professional agitators, the people like Mike Lindell and others who’ve gone around the country speaking at Republican Party county meetings and have basically turned their livelihoods into holding forth with all these conspiracies that were based on things they claimed were happening and couldn’t be proven and “invisible hidden hands” and “the world’s out to get us” kind of stuff. And I’m not making any of this up. I won’t get into the details. The point is the details are really hard to follow, but people just nod and go along. 

But below that, to answer your question, is on these pro-Trump, right of center social media platforms, you have these channels. They’re sort of pages where people share information and they talk and they communicate and they have a community there. And I would periodically go and see what these folks are saying. And I found this one channel on Telegram, which is one of the platforms, and it’s called the Election Education channel, and it’s run by a woman who is based in Washington state, and she is different than the folks who are in Trump’s immediate orbit. Because the folks in Trump’s immediate orbit will say—there’ll be a lot of cliches: “It was stolen.” “It was electronically hacked.” “Oh, they’re fabricating voters.” “Oh, they’re making up voter lists.” “Oh, they’re stealing ballots.” 

These folks instead, at this Election Education channel, they decided to try to learn about the way elections work. And what I mean by that is there are a lot of subsystems and steps with a lot of bureaucratic and technical procedures that really follow the start to the finish of elections. So the whole voter registration system has its own rules and its own data, and then the whole ballot counting system, the vote counting system, is another set of computers and analytics and records and data. So they’ve discovered this and what they’ve tried to do is they’ve tried to teach themselves about it because they don’t trust talking to election officials and election officials most often don’t really want to talk to them or they lose patience.

So what’s happened is these folks, especially on this Election Education channel, I found more than a hundred really pretty well done graphics. It’s not like a bumper sticker, but they’re charts that can be read in five or ten seconds, and they have identified all these little steps and technicalities of running elections, and everywhere possible, they’ve tried to figure out, “How can this be used against us?” 

So they’re emblematic of the phrase or cliche that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, because they’re starting with something that’s factual and they just spin off the deep end. And they come from this mindset, “Well, anything that can be done against us will be done against us. And if anything is possible, it means it probably is happening somewhere. And even if people are trying to operate in good faith, like poll workers, they don’t know what’s happening invisibly inside their machines.” And they just go on and on this way. 

And this is really different from the people surrounding Trump at the end of 2020 because they’re not just targeting the candidate, they’re targeting the system. When things get close in the fall, if they are close, it’s going to be a zillion targets.

JJ: So they’ve identified, they’ve broken down the different steps in the election process, and they’re saying, every step of the way, there can be subterfuge.

Atlanta Voice article

The Atlanta Voice (5/7/24) on new restrictive voter registration laws in Georgia: “The victory is sweet especially for some that believe the 2020 Presidential election was ‘stolen’.”

SR: Let’s just put this in the context of what you’re hearing about right now. So in early May, the governor of Georgia signed a bill that allows mass election challenges or challenges of voter registrations. And this had been in law before, and literally less than 10 people in 2020 tried to challenge the voter registrations of over a hundred thousand voters who obviously predominantly lived in the democratic epicenters, the blue cities, lower income communities, college campuses and things like that. 

So the governor signed a bill allowing this to actually be expanded six months from now towards the ’24 presidential election in November. What you have in these narratives as a backdrop to what you read on the Trump social media channels is, “The Democrats are fabricating voters. The voter lists are actually not up to date, and that’s on purpose, because what they’re doing is they’re finding people who are not voting and they’re filling out ballots in their names, and they’re doing this electronically, and they’re doing this with mailed out ballots, and they’re doing it on Election Day so that when they find out that people haven’t come in, they can just push through five or ten thousand votes as needed, and this is how they’re going to screw us.”

And that level of paranoia—I could tell you practically why that is very unlikely, because there are too many other checks and balances in the actual data and records to get away with something like that where it wouldn’t be caught very early and immediately and quarantined and found and fixed and corrected. But the point, what I’m saying is, this is the rhetoric and the crazy-making around just this one little step at the start of the process. 

So what people in the mainstream media and in election defense circles have not acknowledged is this same level of focus and what I would call craziness or paranoia, they’ve got scripts or scenarios every step of the way through the final certification, which comes weeks after Election Day. They don’t trust the machines, or they don’t trust the testing. They don’t trust how ballots might be delivered from a voting site to a counting center. I mean, it just goes on and on and on and on.

They don’t know what they don’t know. So what do I mean by that? They do not know, or they never say, what security measures might be in place to quarantine problems. They don’t know what other data or records occur upstream might be used to double check and say, “Wait a second, this isn’t right. It doesn’t match.” They don’t know, and they never say, what is the scale of proposed impacts here, are we talking about ten or a hundred or a thousand votes? 

So it becomes this crazy-making, spinning kind of mindset that will never be satisfied. And even if you respond to one thing, there’s always going to be something else. It’s always going to be a “What about this?” and “What about that?”

JJ: Well, I want to say a few things—that you’ve actually said, but just to lift them up—for one thing, to show that it’s a rhetorical kind of thing, these folks are not saying, “If you did this, then I would believe that the process was clean.” They’re not offering solutions, they’re not offering things that might be done to be introduced in the process, and then we would accept the results. They are emphatically not doing that. 

And then let me just tack onto that, you have written, actually, voting systems are not black boxes; there is data, there is ballot-centered evidence that can be verified. So it’s two things; it’s both, there are things that we can use to check and to make these processes transparent, and also, they don’t want to do that. They don’t want agreed-upon, evidentiary-based things that we can all see and say, “All right, this actually went according to rules.”

SR: That’s exactly right. For example, the attorney general’s race in Arizona, after the official result was in, there was a several hundred-vote margin, which means it went to an official recount. It turned out that in one county they didn’t count 500 votes, 500 ballots. And people knew what to look for to basically make sure that the number of voters equals the number of ballots. Very early on they would’ve seen there was an inventory problem, there was a mismatch. But instead it took nine weeks, nearly. It was late December before that recount was over. And in that nine week period, you can just imagine the volume of partisan propaganda that occurred. 

So what’s happening is these folks, they’re learning about how elections work, they don’t know, or they didn’t know then, where to look to basically solve the most basic questions. Does the number of ballots equal the number of voters? And then you can drill down. You can make sure that the votes on each ballot, if they’re not totally sloppy, match what’s in the final spreadsheet. And if you want to argue about the sloppy ballots, you can find them very quickly. That’s what lawyers argue over in recounts, “Do I have a vote? Is it for my candidate or the other candidate or neither of us?” And they don’t do any of that.

JJ: Well, finally, I know that you have heard, “Let’s just not talk about these people. That only elevates them, that only spotlights them.” And I guess I see what people are saying? But at the same time, Trump won in 2016, he became the freaking president based on all manner of nonsense and straight up lying. And so I don’t know what we get from ignoring that, but we should certainly come at it smarter. 

And so I want to ask you, what would you be asking from reporters? And I want to say, especially at the local level—you know, we can get big chin-scratching ideas pieces in the national media, but local reporting on the election is going to be really meaningful. “What happened here? What actually happened?” 

What role do you see for reporters who aren’t, like you, specifically dedicated to issues of electoral processes and transparency, but they’re going to be the ones that we look to for reporting claims of fraud or claims of poll worker bias and so on in November. What would you like to put in reporters’ minds, maybe?

Detroit Free Press article

The Detroit Free Press (11/5/20) debunked a widely-shared Trumpist claim that late-arriving ballots were smuggled into a Detroit counting center.

SR: Well, I can tell you very simply, most local reporters, and this is also true of the people who come to observe elections, they don’t know what they’re seeing. They’re standing behind a stanchion or at a distance and they don’t really know what people are looking at as they’re shuffling ballot return envelopes or ballots, or looking at a computer screen to check signatures or something else. 

What I would hope is that people who actually know the way things work could do some proactive education to tell journalists who are going to be covering the swing counties and the swing states to literally help them understand what they are seeing as the process inches forward. It’s not hard to do if you know what to look for. 

There aren’t that many key decision points, and at least at that point, at the very worst, if the counting takes days or weeks, and the editors are saying, “I need a story by five o’clock, what are you going to do? What do you got?” At least then, you will actually be covering what’s real instead of covering the made-up crazy things, like “The ballots are being smuggled in the next room.” At least it could come back to what’s real, as opposed to what’s made up. And I think that’s the best we can hope for, is to try to nip the disinformation rumors in the bud. And that’s where they’ll start, in these swing counties, in these swing states, with these local reporters and local influences.

JJ: Alright, then we’ll end it there for now. We’ve been speaking with Steven Rosenfeld. You can find his piece, “Trump Loyalists Preview Strategies to Upend 2024 Election,” online at Steven Rosenfeld, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

SR: Well, thank you so much for having me.

This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.

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