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Experts Say Talk About Election Being Rigged Or Stolen Overblown

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Photo: Elliott Stallion

With all the talk about stolen or rigged elections swirling online and in campaign mailers, what exactly can Floridians expect to see in November?

Confusion over mail-in ballots. Early voting. Rumors swirl on social media about how our votes could be tampered with.

Just what can we expect in the upcoming election? We talk with elections experts about what Floridians should expect to see given the close presidential races in the past.

Voting used to be simple: On Election Day, you went to your voting precinct.

7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Then stay tuned to the news to see who wins.

That is so 20th century.

Today, voting in person is only one of the ways you can cast your ballot. You can vote early. You can vote by mail. But during the primaries, as many as 35,000 votes in the state weren’t counted – mostly because they were received after 7 p.m. on Election Day.

During a presidential election, that number is likely to go up.

“So we’re looking at tsunami of mail-in ballots this year, due to COVID,” said St. Petersburg College professor Tara Newsom, who founded the college’s Center for Civic Learning & Community Engagement.

Because Florida is so critical in this election, she says a lot of eyes will be focused on the state. If President Trump loses Florida, it’s unlikely he’ll have a path to getting the 270 electoral college votes needed for re-election.

Newsom says she recently was mailed a postcard that the mail carrier said looked like her ballot. But this official-looking document was full of imagery of the president, inviting her to vote by mail. That kind of misdirection, she says, can confuse the elderly or people who haven’t voted before.

“That certainly does looks subversive, in trying to confuse the voter on whether this is really a ballot, or this is an invitation,” Newsom said. “And certainly planting the seeds on having a chilling effect on vote by mail is extremely prevalent.”

Florida has an advantage over many states because we have had mail-in ballots for years. But, since concerns over the coronavirus will likely mean more people will vote by mail than ever before, it will take more time for elections officials to process those ballots.

Newsom says she spends a lot of time at St. Petersburg College trying to debunk a lot of the myths about voting by mail.

“This is really important for us to understand the efficacy of vote by mail and not be scared of it,” Newsom said. “To set aside those seeds of doubt and really trust that if it’s been good enough for our military for all these years, it’s good enough for each one of us. And to trust the system.”

There’s one thing that might be in short supply, says Ciara Torres-Spelliscy. She’s a professor at Stetson College of Law in St. Petersburg, specializing in campaign finance and election law.

“What I think all of us are going to need is a lot of patience,” she said. “Because we may not know on election night who won the state of Florida. And as we learned in 2000, whoever wins Florida can win the presidency.”

When asked if she foresees a crisis arising if the vote is extremely close – like 2016’s razor-thin margin for President Trump – Torres-Spelliscy says she wants to “explode the voting fraud myth” that has been one of the president’s talking points.

“The problem with telling people that voting fraud is rampant is that you can discourage just average voters from voting,” she said. “Because if you think that the fix is in, then why exert the extra effort to show up at your polling place and vote? Especially during a pandemic, when in-person voting can impact your health.”

Some people are worried that with all the talk on social media about foreign interference, the result of the election could be cast into doubt. Newsom agrees a clear victor may not emerge on election night, and talk about the election being “rigged” or “stolen” in advance could be used to bolster radical claims.

“We’ve got to help people understand that a peaceful transfer of power is a part of our Constitutional history,” she said. “So when you have someone planting a seed of doubt or refusing to acknowledge the integrity of the election, it’s really important that Floridians understand that Florida’s elections have great integrity, are sacrosanct, that we have good laws to protect them, and that you may not have the election results on election night, and you need to be ready for that.”

The cure, she says, is taking anything you read or hear – particularly on social media – with a grain of salt.

Despite all the concerns about voting fraud, interference from other countries and such, Torres-Spelliscy thinks there might be record turnout at the polls – because a lot of people thought Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in four years ago.

“Many people believed that it was a foregone conclusion that Clinton would win,” she said. “And so they didn’t bother to vote – which then leads to the other result – that Trump wins. And I don’t think that complacency is likely to be repeated in the 2020 election.”

She does have one piece of advice – if you’re going to vote by mail, the earlier, the better.

This story is part of The State We’re In, an elections reporting initiative from WUSF and WMFE in Orlando. It’s produced in partnership with America Amplified, an initiative using community engagement to inform local journalism. It is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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