Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Mail-in Ballots, Kremlin Media and the Threat to Election Integrity in 2020
Mail-in Ballots, Kremlin Media and the Threat to Election Integrity in 2020

Mail-in Ballots, Kremlin Media and the Threat to Election Integrity in 2020

Post by Rachel Chernaskey

July 9, 2020

“Now for the $1 million-dollar question,” an RT op-ed about the Iowa caucuses said. “Would the Democrats prefer to risk looking foolish and inept by torpedoing the release of the Iowa caucus results if it meant keeping Sanders or some other possible ‘troublemaker’ down in the political basement?” Russian state-sponsored news outlets were quick to pounce on the glitches caused by the Shadow Inc.-built app used to tally votes during the Iowa caucuses. RT noted Americans could be “excused for their distrust of the system after what happened in 2016” and that “the facts that have been dug up on the group behind the failed Iowa app” wouldn’t “do much to quell their suspicions.” Other articles noted “increasingly glaring irregularities” and called those wondering whether Democratic “party insiders would really try to steal another primary” naive. 

Kremlin coverage of the primaries following Iowa continued to suggest the U.S. elections were rigged, with COVID-19 precautions painted as a facade with which the establishment could mask its manipulation of the system. Today, amid national debates about appropriate voting methods in a pandemic and domestic allegations of widespread voter fraud, Russian outlets have decisively shifted their subversive focus to mail-in ballots. The “election rigging” narrative promoted during the primaries pitted Senator Bernie Sanders as robbed of the nomination by the establishment’s preferred candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden. Now Kremlin narratives about mail-in ballots paint President Trump as the victim.

For example, on July 3, RT published an op-ed with a rather inflammatory lede. “Biden’s supporters are manipulating the polls and planning to cheat on mail-in ballots and use other dirty tricks to seize victory,” it wrote. The article then asked whether American troops will “back the President’s call if it comes?” The question illustrates the startling explicit convergence of two themes often seen in Kremlin media targeting the U.S. populace—fear of imminent martial law and alleged election rigging.

Another story titled “Donald Trump is completely right about mail-in ballots – they are the easiest route to a RIGGED ELECTION” originated in pro-Russia fringe media and was repurposed by RT, using the Kremlin’s foundation of rigged election claims to stir fear and sow doubt about mail-in ballots. Other articles similarly relied on President Trump’s claims of potential fraud, like Sputnik’s “Voter Fraud’: Trump Threatens Michigan Funding over State’s Decision to Mail Absentee Ballot Apps” and “Trump Says Mail-in Voting ‘My Biggest Risk’ in Re-Election.” 

A Sputnik News story that reported on Biden’s primary win in Kansas took care to highlight the fact that mail-in voting was used. Still other articles highlight cases of alleged fraud in other local U.S. elections, flaws in the system and infighting on the issue. 

Most of the RT and Sputnik News stories about mail-in voting don’t appear to have attracted a significant amount of public social media engagement. However, op-eds with inflammatory headlines gain more traction than others. The story with the most public social media engagement, “Wayne Dupree: The Democrats will use fraud to win this fall’s presidential election, and Trump may have to call on the military,” received more than 800 public shares, 1,100 public comments and nearly 3,600 public reactions on Facebook as well as more than 600 interactions on Twitter as of July 9.

Though Iranian and Chinese state-sponsored media outlets have also written about mail-in voting, coverage is much less frequent. Iranian and Chinese stories typically center on allegations made by President Trump about voter fraud and his battles with Twitter as the social media company implements fact-checking labels onto individual tweets. In an example of narrative convergence between nation states, China’s state-backed outlet the Global Times recently republished an article by Sputnik News on the GOP’s lawsuit against California Governor Gavin Newsom related to mail-in voting.

It’s no surprise that Russia has deliberately pushed conspiracies about mail-in voting to uplift their preferred candidate in 2020. Given the delays, ensuing confusion and conspiracy theories that emerged after problems in Iowa, narratives that falsely claim fraud via mail-in voting pose a significant risk to the perceived integrity of the 2020 election. Doubt about the legitimacy of results on Election Day and chaos in the U.S. only stands to benefit the Kremlin. 

The rapid, vast expansion of mail-in voting at a time of national crisis naturally invites doubt and uncertainty amongst the public—perfect conditions for foreign and domestic actors to spread disinformation. Officials overseeing election security and integrity in 2020 would do well to get ahead of any knowledge gaps the American public holds about mail-in voting operations and protocols. A preemptive approach offers America its best chance for sustaining the integrity of the upcoming election amidst unprecedented waves of disinformation.