Fighting Back Against Election Lies : The NPR Politics Podcast Research from the Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan group that tracks election laws, surveyed voters on their attitudes toward election systems and processes. They found that tweaking messaging related to elections impacts the way voters look at the way elections are conducted, possibly giving a roadmap for officials who want to fight back against disinformation.

This episode: political correspondent Ashley Lopez, voting correspondent Miles Parks, senior political editor & correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Fighting Back Against Election Lies

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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Tamara Keith from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. And I am so excited because we are getting ready to go back out on the road. And Houston, you're up first. Join Susan Davis, Asma Khalid, Ashley Lopez, Domenico Montanaro and me at Zilkha Hall on Thursday, September 15. You can find more information about tickets, including for students, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Houston Public Media. We hope to see you there.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

ASHLEY LOPEZ, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LOPEZ: How do you solve a problem like election misinformation? It's a question on the minds of many as we navigate primaries ahead of November's midterms. And, Miles, this has been a growing problem in elections really since 2016 and Russia's influence campaign on that election. How much closer do you think we are to solving that?

PARKS: Well, Ashley, we have both spent...

LOPEZ: (Laughter).

PARKS: ...A lot of the last couple of years talking to election officials, and I don't think - I wish I could say, wow, you know, we've really figured it out after six years of basically spending a lot of manpower, money, energy as a society thinking about this issue. But I was talking to Stephen Richer recently, who is the Republican lead election official in Maricopa County, which is Arizona's most populous county. And I asked him just point blank, how do you combat false information as an election official, as somebody who thinks about this all the time?

STEPHEN RICHER: Well, if I said I knew, that would be a lie. We have ideas, and we've been trying our hardest to employ all manner of tactics. But I don't think that anyone has cracked disinformation as a societal challenge.

PARKS: So there you have it. You know, he went on to say, you know, there's no real silver bullet. Election officials and local governments are putting a lot more money and energy into thinking about this, but there just hasn't really been a good answer yet.

MONTANARO: I mean, it seems like it's gotten worse, if anything, because you've got President Trump, former President Trump, out there talking about how the election was stolen in 2020, when we know that's not true and that's been disproven over and over again, when he's lost in court repeatedly, when audits have shown that he's wrong. And you still have millions of people in his base believing him and now having half a dozen election deniers win secretary of state's races for the nomination for the Republican Party, you know, four of whom are in, you know, swing states. You know, that is a very different place than we were even just leading up to 2020.

LOPEZ: Well, that does bring us to this research that you reported on, Miles, recently. It was commissioned by the Voting Rights Lab, which is a group that promotes easier access to voting. They tried to, like, quantify how people feel about voting in the U.S. and, more importantly, what sort of messages have an effect on their trust. What did they find?

PARKS: Honestly, it was one of the first glimmers of hope, as somebody who covers this beat. Basically what they found is that when you present positive, affirmative messaging about democracy, about, you know, things like, you know, across the world, people look to American elections as models of freedom, fairness and things like that - basically getting people to kind of feel a little bit more patriotic, a little bit more invested in our American systems - that has a big effect on how they feel about whether they trust American elections.

So they basically did this experiment where they asked a group of voters, you know, how do you feel? Do you trust the counting in America's elections? Roughly 63% of voters said that, yes, I do trust how we count votes in this country. But then they asked a different group of voters, after reading this affirmative statement that had all of this kind of nonpartisan but very patriotic messaging about kind of the strength of democracy, and then more than 70% of voters, after reading just a short statement, said, yes, I trust the counting of votes in our elections.

I talked to Tresa Undem about this, who led the research for the research firm PerryUndem, and here's what she said.

TRESA UNDEM: Here's what was stunning that I almost never see (laughter) in social science research or our own survey research is more conservative voters, after hearing that affirmative narrative, they were in the double-digit points more likely to say they trust the process for counting votes in elections compared to a control group.

PARKS: So initially, 35% of Republicans said, yes, I trust the counting of elections. But when they asked a different group of Republican voters, after reading this affirmative messaging, 55% of Republican voters said, yes, I trust American elections.

MONTANARO: You know, it really shows why nationalism works, especially on the right. I mean, this idea of building in American exceptionalism around almost anything, you know, you can really appeal, especially to people on the right to say, hey, America is really good at this thing. And it's amazing to see that in this research that people actually, you know, moved in the direction of being more patriotic and believing more in election systems.

LOPEZ: I mean, it's heartening to hear that sort of positive messaging actually works.

Miles, can you talk to us about what didn't work, though?

PARKS: Yeah, it was interesting. What didn't work, to be completely honest, was putting some facts about the state of American democracy in front of Republican voters, things like messages that - kind of like Domenico was mentioning, talking about election deniers winning voting races or specifically the number of bills, as we've reported on a lot, in state legislatures all across the country that are looking to restrict voting. When those sorts of kind of democracy in peril narratives were put in front of Republican voters, they did not respond well to that. They kind of saw messages like that as Democratic talking points - you know, this idea that actually things aren't that bad and that this country is just fine. So those sort of kind of more negative messaging campaigns did not seem to move the needle in terms of getting people to have more trust in the voting process.

MONTANARO: Well, I think part of that - right? - is because of the bias - the confirmation bias that a lot of Republicans and conservatives have to begin with and this distrust of the mainstream media. And when, you know, even if we're putting out facts that have been backed up by multiple sources, it's very difficult to break through. And we've seen that repeatedly, even with trying to fact-check things, for example.

LOPEZ: Miles, we've been talking about how messaging can be used to affect the way people look at election integrity and security. Do you get the sense that candidates are taking this kind of messaging to heart yet? In other words, are they starting to say things like, this is better for America, instead of, you know, the other side is passing laws to make it harder to vote?

PARKS: I don't think so because I think there's kind of two different incentive structures here. The candidates have a very different incentive structure than election officials. Candidates, they're really just trying to win elections, whereas election officials are kind of in charge of making sure people trust the process and that everything goes according to plan. So while election officials, I think we're going to start to see, try to use this sort of affirmative messaging to try and kind of bring some of these people who don't trust elections back into the fold, candidates, especially Democratic candidates - you might think, oh, they might be able to peel away some Republican voters by using some of this messaging, when actually what we know is that appealing to things like democracy is in peril, touching on kind of more catastrophic narratives around elections is what drives Democratic base voters. And so when we're thinking about what are Democratic candidates going to use, you always kind of have to assume that they're going to appeal to that base as opposed to trying to peel off a few of these kind of more Republican, moderate Republican voters.

LOPEZ: Right. So, Domenico, like, let's say you're a candidate in a purplish district. Is your messaging more like these people are extreme or we need to protect, like, the fundamentals of American democracy?

MONTANARO: You know, you might hear a little bit of both. But what I've heard from Democratic campaign officials is that they're continuing to hammer this idea of, quote-unquote, "extreme MAGA candidates" - people who align with Trump - because in a purple district, you know, in places that potentially could go one way or the other, they need to win over independents in those districts. And by the way, fear and anger are two of the biggest motivators in politics. If you want to turn out your base, as cynical as that might sound, it's really important because it works. So ginning up a fear about what another candidate is going to do - whether that's a cultural, you know, touchstone, like conservatives will do about Democratic candidates or it's about something like a threat to democracy, like you're seeing a lot of Democrats now say about a lot of what they're calling extreme Republican candidates - that's a really important reason why we're actually seeing Democrats hold up a little bit better in a lot of these Senate races, for example, in purple places, because there are these more hard-line Republican candidates. And Democrats are really driving home that message to try to appeal to independents.

LOPEZ: Miles, I think one of the big takeaways from this research is that these views are not immutable, that there was a lot of fear and concern once that - once somebody goes down this rabbit hole of believing the big lie, that there's, like, really no reversing their views on this. So what does it mean that these views actually can change?

PARKS: Truly, I don't think it can be overstated that it is a real glimmer of hope in what has been feeling like kind of like a void of darkness. I mean, I talked to Paul Gronke, who's a political scientist at Reed College, who has done a lot of work for a long time working with local election officials and kind of gauging how they're feeling about things and how things are going at the local level. And when I sent him this research, he was a little bit taken aback. I think he had kind of viewed election denialism as a more solid base. And what he said was that he was really heartened to find that the foundation of some of these false beliefs seem to be pretty fragile, which kind of can give you a little bit of optimism looking ahead - maybe not to this election cycle but, you know, over the next five or 10 years.

MONTANARO: You know, I think the real message here is never underestimate the power of patriotism, of American exceptionalism, especially on the right. We've heard that over and over again in a lot of campaigns - this idea of American exceptionalism. And, you know, it is a rallying cry. And it's interesting to see it play out in this research. And it's going to be interesting to see how local election officials take this and try to build trust around voting systems.

LOPEZ: OK. And that's definitely something to look out for as the campaign season starts to heat up. I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LOPEZ: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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