In a 2020 survey of dictionary.com users, "unprecedented" was chosen as the word of the year. There's little wonder why. In addition to the formerly unimaginable devastation of a worldwide pandemic, the culmination of over 400 years of racial injustice, catastrophic storms, wildfires and flooding across the country, the U.S. was in the middle of one of the most divisive elections in our lifetime.
While the stakes of the election alone were enough to merit the label "unprecedented," the 2020 election was also mired in a scourge of misinformation meant to undermine the foundational elements of our democracy. There is little wonder that we are facing a crisis of confidence in government institutions like we have never seen before.
As we work to recover from 2020, I have begun devoting my time and energy to rebuilding confidence in our elections.
To be clear, there is no reason to doubt the security and results of the 2020 election. In fact, there is every reason to trust their accuracy and security. Several Trump Administration officials, from Attorney General Bill Barr to Chris Krebs, the head of the government agency tasked with monitoring cybersecurity, called 2020 the most secure election in our history. Recounts, audits and numerous lawsuits further verified the election results.
While Oregon has fared better than most of the nation, we are not immune to the poison of misinformation. Despite becoming the nation's first all vote by mail state over 20 years ago, and where Republicans and Democrats alike have served as Secretaries of State, recent research by the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College paints a picture of voter confidence in Oregon that, while largely positive, leaves too many Oregonians behind.
Overall, the researchers found partisan division and concerns about the security of elections, which were only heightened after the election. Among the researchers' top findings:
• There's a strong split between Oregon Democrats and Republicans when it comes to confidence in national elections, but that split also exists for our state's election system.
• Perceptions of election fraud and vote suppression both show strong partisan differences, but partisan differences on the potential for fraud are greater than on potential voter suppression. There's also a partisan difference on Oregonians' attitudes about the potential for voter fraud and to a lesser extent on voter suppression tactics or policies that discourage voting.
• Independents and Republicans were more likely than Democrats to think that extending vote-by-mail nationwide would cause more voters to mismark ballots.
As Oregon's chief elections official, I find both cause for concern and optimism in these results. I want every Oregonian, regardless of their political affiliations or lack thereof, to have confidence in the systems that determine their elected government. When this public trust is lacking, it undermines the legitimacy of the government that is elected by the people.
So, what is to blame for this distrust? The widely accepted consensus among academics, law enforcement, and nonpartisan elections officials clearly identifies the culprit: misinformation and disinformation. Simply put, an echo chamber in social media and some media outlets has created the environment.
The University of Washington's nonpartisan Center for an Informed Public has been studying misinformation and, along with a nonpartisan coalition of organizations and other academic institutions, released a report in early March on the impacts to the 2020 election, subsequent fallout, and recommendations. Unsurprisingly, they found domestic actors, and to a lesser degree, foreign actors, actively engaged in spreading false information in order to undermine Americans' faith in our democracy.
Throughout 2020, they found that influential individuals spread misinformation "sometimes based on honest voter concerns or genuine misunderstandings, into cohesive narratives of systemic election fraud." The most influential of those were the verified social media accounts belonging to partisan media outlets, influencers and political figures. Ultimately, all of this coalesced into the shameful Jan. 6 insurrection at our nation's Capitol.
While the research is clear, what is less clear is how we defeat this epidemic of disinformation and rebuild public trust. Although there are no easy answers, the nonpartisan researchers at Reed College and the University of Washington offer some helpful ideas, including continuing to bolster nonpartisan sources of information, like the Oregon voters' pamphlet, on websites and social media.
The University of Washington researchers also suggest efforts by the federal government to continue bolstering the work to combat misinformation. This is why I joined a bipartisan group of Secretaries of State earlier this month, urging the Department of Homeland Security to do more to protect and rebuild our democracy.
Once again, we stand in an unprecedented moment. We can allow partisanship and cynicism to win out, or we can find ways to come together to forge a path for our state and nation that protects democracy. As your secretary of state, I proudly lead an agency that does its work in a fiercely nonpartisan way. I believe that Oregonians and Americans, regardless of their partisan viewpoint, share an abiding commitment to free, fair, and secure elections regardless of the outcome. I stand ready to find partners across the political spectrum to rebuild faith in our public institutions and democracy. I hope you will join me.
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