Election officials across the US have faced an unprecedented amount of threats and harassment since the 2020 election. Now they say that Dominion Voting Systems’ decision to settle its landmark defamation lawsuit with Fox for $787.5m last week may not do enough to stop conspiracy theories about the company’s machines leading into the 2024 election.
While election officials in states and localities that use Dominion machines agree the settlement is a win for the integrity of elections, they lamented that election misinformation will continue, especially given that Fox News personalities and executives didn’t have to testify about whether they knowingly spread false claims about the voting machines, or offer a public apology.
The Maricopa county recorder, Stephen Richer, who was asked by Dominion to sit for testimony in the litigation in September, said he expects the misinformation about Dominion machines, which is one of the most prevalent types he hears about regularly, to continue.
“This is not a panacea, especially at the grassroots level,” he said about the settlement. “I don’t think that a bunch of people are going to now say, ‘Oh it seems that tabulation equipment was actually OK.’”
Richer runs elections in the largest county in Arizona, a critical swing state that has been a hotbed of election misinformation, threats and harassment.
“We still, every single day, hear questions about vote switching, connectivity to the internet, and it doesn’t matter how many studies, how many reports, how many outside audits, how many election technology companies come in and look at this, those haven’t been able to go away,” he added.
Public pressure about Dominion’s machines has made the Maricopa county board of supervisors, which selects the county’s vendors for voting machines, consider whether or not to renew its contract with Dominion for vote tabulators, Richer said. In a court filing, he said: “I have concerns over my own personal security if we re-enlist Dominion.”
But other officials are calling Tuesday’s settlement a victory for elections. Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, said it “fully vindicates Georgia’s voting system”.
“It vindicates how we recorded the election results in 2020,” he said, adding: “We have shown, without a doubt, that we have safe and secure elections.”
The settlement might not stop some who hold extremist views from believing elections are rigged, but there is little that can be done to change those people’s opinions, Raffensperger said, and even a trial would not have done anything.
“Anyone who wants to educate themselves on the issue and be fully informed will have the information and they just have to come to grips with the reality that the machines accurately recorded the votes in 2020. The machines did not flip the votes,” he said. “People that really want to lean into these false narratives, the misinformation and disinformation, perhaps there’s nothing you can do to convince them.”
New Mexico’s secretary of state, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, told a local reporter that the settlement was a victory for voter confidence and democracy.
“Hopefully the settlement of this lawsuit helps to further discredit the people and organizations that push election lies in our state and across the nation,” she said.
Tammy Patrick, chief executive for programs at the National Association of Election Officials and a former Maricopa county elections official, said litigation and sanctions are all steps in the right direction to hold people accountable for misinformation, but the public has to know these things are occurring.
“It will only be with the same effort of amplification of these penalties that we can hope to convince the public of the truth: that their votes were accurately counted,” she said. If that happens, “then election officials might be able to get back to the tasks at hand of conducting elections without simultaneously dealing with death threats and distracting conspiracy theories”.
Experts on misinformation say they don’t expect Fox News to change its behaviour, as election disinformation is now entrenched throughout the Republican party. In its statement after the settlement, Fox acknowledged that the court found some of its statements about Dominion to be false, but said its settlement “reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards”.
And even if Fox News tamps down on some of the claims it spreads, other further-right networks will continue to air extreme claims.
Still, Richer said he’s hopeful the settlement could mean that false claims will be less widespread moving forward.
“Will claims like these have less oxygen because some of the main platforms that gave oxygen to them will be reticent to air them?” he asked. “Maybe it’ll have more of a helpful impact for the ‘24[-hour news] cycle’.”
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