For decades, Lulu Friesdat has made election integrity her life’s work. She gained support from activists and academics and co-founded Smart Elections, a nonpartisan group opposing some voting machines that Ms Fries says would increase wait times and cost a small fortune to buy and maintain.
But since 2020, things have changed. Former President Donald J. Trump catapulted concerns about voting machines into the Republican mainstream by falsely claiming that the 2020 election was rigged, in part because of electronic voting machines.
Election integrity advocates such as Ms Friesdat are now in an awkward position, pushing for election security while sometimes reinforcing claims most vocally made by conspiracy theorists, including those involved in the so-called Stop the Steal movement.
For example, some election activists warn that election machines can be hacked or compromised, while some conspiracy theorists say without evidence that those hacks have already happened. Election officials say no hacks have occurred.
Misinformation watchdogs say the somewhat overlapping arguments illustrate another consequence of Trump’s false and exaggerated claims of voter fraud, which have led to doubts about election integrity among much of the American public. Ms. Friesdat and other activists like her fear their work will become too closely tied to conspiracy theorists and Mr Trump’s case, making potential allies, such as progressives, reluctant to join the fight.
“When you read an article that says these voting machines are coming in, and people’s concerns about these issues are very similar to those of the Stop the Steal movement, it makes it very difficult for Democrats to work on this issue” , she said. Frisdat said. “And it has nothing to do with that. It has nothing to do with the Stop the Steal movement.”
Misinformation watchdogs say the two movements could erode confidence in the US election even further, intentionally or not, as conspiracy theorists tend to exaggerate legitimate criticism to incite supporters and raise questions about the entire electoral system.
“You plant a seed of doubt, and it will grow and grow into a conspiracy theory,” said Tim Weninger, a University of Notre Dame computer science professor who studies social media misinformation. “It always starts with one untruth, and that grows into two untruths, and then it grows into more, and before long you have a whole conspiracy theory in your hands.”
The debate has played out nationwide as multiple states have faced pushbacks from electronic voting machines. It’s happening now in New York, where officials are considering certifying new voting machines made by Election Systems & Software, a manufacturer based in Omaha. The company is the target of Mr. Trump’s voting fraud story, alongside competitors such as Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic. Yet ES&S and its machines have also come under scrutiny from election activists and security experts.
Ms Friesdat and good governance groups such as Common Cause, a national watchdog that focuses on government accountability, have campaigned against the machines for years, saying they are expensive and could lengthen voter queues. They also warn that voters do not always consult the overview cards, which means that errors creep in.
But sometimes they have gone further and entered the field now dominated by conspiracy theorists. In a Facebook post, Smart Elections wrote that the machines can “add, remove, and modify votes on your ballot” — a claim almost identical to that made by post-2020 election deniers.
ES&S wrote in an emailed statement that the machines were safe and voters were able to quickly complete their ballots. It highlighted that the ExpressVote XL can handle multiple languages at once and support voters with disabilities. While the company said the machines cost an average of about $10,000 each, it added that states would save money over time because they don’t have to preprint traditional ballots in multiple languages and because the new equipment would eliminate unnecessary stuff. to eliminate.
It is widely expected that the machine will soon be certified in New York following a rigorous third-party security assessment.
ES&S has used the allegations of potential hacks to target those opposed to adopting its machines. ES&S said the fear that its machines could be hacked is “a conspiratorial claim used in the aftermath of 2020”. It threatened to sue Smart Elections, calling its claims about the machines “false, defamatory and disparaging”.
Smart Elections responded that its views were supported by experts and otherwise protected as opinion.
The fear of hacking remains the most extreme risk put forward by election activists, and it is one of the false accounts of election deniers for how President Biden won in 2020. Election security experts say election officials should act as if a hack is possible, putting in place audits and transparent processes that allow vulnerabilities to be found and fixed before they are exploited.
But there was no evidence that the 2020 election was affected by hacking or compromised machines, and many officials said the threat of hacking should not be blown out of proportion.
“I liken it to saying that the gold stored in the basement of the Federal Reserve Bank on Wall Street is susceptible to theft,” said Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, which is responsible for ultimately certifying the machines.
“In theory, it would theoretically be possible to steal the gold from the Federal Reserve if you aligned all attack elements with the numerous security protocols,” Kellner said. “But it’s not particularly realistic.”