We are a democracy in recovery.
The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia hosted a panel to assess the damage that Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” of a stolen election has done to the integrity of future elections in the United States.
The hour-long conversation was led by UVa alumni and Center for Politics Scholar Christopher Krebs. In 2020, Krebs served as the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security working to secure the presidential election.
The Trump administration fired Krebs after the agency released a report calling the election “the most secure in American history.”
On Tuesday, Krebs pondered the future of American democracy alongside former Congresswoman Barbara Comstock, Stanford Research Manager Renee DiResta and UVa media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan.
“For the first time in my life I’m a single-issue voter,” Comstock said. I’ve never been a single-issue voter. I was a conservative Republican but now my issue is democracy.”
The Big Lie, as it has been dubbed, began shortly after former president Donald Trump lost the 2020 election to President Joe Biden. Trump used social media to mobilize a disinformation campaign that rejected the results of the election.
Shortly after Nov. 8, 2020, the Trump campaign, state and national Republican parties, several Republican candidates for state and local offices and voters contested about a dozen elections in Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in state courts.
Michigan audits lasted through the February after Biden’s inauguration.
The campaign came to a head on Jan. 6, 2021 when insurrectionists attacked the Capitol building to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the next president.
Politicizing Election Workers
Conspiracies crafted by Trump and supporters led to death threats and trauma for poll workers in Fulton County, Georgia after the 2020 election, the speakers noted.
“Most people who come with the conspiracy theories and talk to you about them have usually not worked the polls,” Comstock said. “I have been on some of these crazy email chains of people who are national names on election night 2020 saying ‘Look! They’re stealing the election.’ These were people who just didn’t understand anything about politics.”
Before the 2020 election, working the polls was considered an honorable and unbiased position. Now, poll workers who fight for fair voting tactics are labeled participants in election fraud, DiResta says.
As a part of this year’s nationwide Election Day program, assistant United States attorneys in the Abingdon, Roanoke and Charlottesville divisions have been appointed to serve as District Election Officers for the Western District of Virginia, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The officers will oversee the handling of election day complaints of voting rights concerns, threats of violence to election officials or staff and election fraud in consultation with Justice Department Headquarters in Washington, D.C..
Social Media Influence
Krebs said the 2020 stolen election lie was part of an effort started by Russian operatives in 2016 to interfere with that election. He said the effort had three components.
“First was attempts to get into restricted databases and other systems related to administering elections. The second was targeting and hacking into political campaigns. And the third is more pernicious; drawn out disinformation,” Krebs said. “It’s the first time that the internet could be used to destabilize democracy, to really get in our institutions of power here in the U.S..”
Since 2016, social media platforms like Twitter have done sweeps to remove fake users that were employed by Russian intelligence agencies. Social platforms remain a crucial tool in determining how issues and narratives are taking shape in different areas and communities around the country, DiResta said.
DiResta emphasized the importance of social media comprehension that reaches beyond media literacy to identify the tools used in propaganda crusades and persuasive rhetoric.
“We study city elections now and COVID vaccines last year,” DiResta said. “The claims are … emotionally relevant, they challenge your real fears and they challenge your real concerns. There is a process of being on the internet, that begs us to think about what persuasive communication looks like, who has the influence and how it works.”
Lost Faith in Democracy
When asked to predict how the current culture of elections in this country may get worse, panelists voiced several concerns but agree one loss has been driving America’s social and political decline.
“We’re now in a situation, in this country of all countries, where we don’t have a romance of democracy. We don’t have something that moves us to believe equally in the power of each other, in the shared future that we all have,” said Vaidhyanathan.
Vaidhyanathan told the audience that silencing bigotry, fascism and fear and amplifying the voices of those who believe in upholding democratic practices is the solution for falling back in love with America’s democracy.
“Instead, the major sounds coming from the United States are about fearing each other, fearing our neighbors, fearing religious minorities, sexual binaries, gender minorities,” he said. “There is no embrace of the strength of us, yet.”
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