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How disinformation is threatening the midterm elections in Texas

Two years after 2020, the Big Lie, the false claim that the presidential election was stolen, is as alive as ever in Texas. And with early voting for the midterm elections underway, many worry democracy will be tested this year like never before. | Lea esta nota en español

By Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, The Texas Newsroom

David Triebs hangs a white flag with a semi-automatic rifle and the words “COME AND TAKE IT” from his white pickup truck.

On a recent afternoon in August, the 57-year-old parked his truck at the Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park to protest a campaign event for Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Beto O’Rourke.

Triebs says he thinks O’Rourke could actually beat Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. Just not in an honest way.

“The way I see it is we have the numbers, but the Left controls the voting machines,” Triebs told The Texas Newsroom. “So, in the end, if Robert Francis wins, it’s going to be because he cheated. Not him personally, but whoever is controlling the machines.”

Triebs admits he doesn’t have any evidence to support his claim, one the Texas Secretary of State, a Republican,  has even debunked.

But Triebs believes it. He's part of a not-insignificant number of Texans who believe — and spread — election disinformation.

Disinformation and fake news, often spread by social media, have become significant problems in the U.S. Two years after 2020, the Big Lie — the false claim the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump — is as alive as ever in Texas. And with early voting for the midterm elections underway, many worry democracy will be tested this year like never before.

Kat Cano, a Democrat who serves as an alternate judge for the Tarrant County Early Voting Ballot Board, told The Texas Newsroom she often deals with election deniers.

“These people are often questioning just the integrity of the people who are working on the election. It’s disheartening,” Cano said.

She said some people might be reluctant to trust the system because they don't know how it works.

But others, Cano said, have what she calls “less clear motives” and tend to dismiss the answers election officials give them. She said these people don’t trust the process, the people running the elections or even the technology being used to count the ballots.

“So this isn’t really about elections (or) concerns about whether or not the process is secure,” Cano said. “It’s about undermining the possibility of having an election at all.”

But the majority of Texans still trust the process. According to a Marist Poll released earlier this month, 73% of Texas adults are “either  confident or very confident in their state or local government to run a fair and accurate election this November.”

And yet disinformation continues to spread, putting election officials in danger.

Most recently, all of the employees of the elections office in Gillespie County  abruptly resigned in August after citing threats against the staff and “dangerous misinformation” in the community.

David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research and author of the book  The Big Truth, said the reports are alarming.

“The professionals who ran elections throughout the states, in Texas and elsewhere, ran such a successful election in terms of process, and yet have been subjected to threats and abuse and harassment over the course of the last two years,” Becker said. “That's created a very volatile situation, and, unfortunately, it's going to take us a long time to get out of it.”

Becker said voters casting a ballot in the midterms should expect the process to run similarly to previous elections.

He is worried about this year’s ballot-counting and certification process if “candidates who perceive that they might be losing seek to undermine confidence in the election process, seek to delegitimize the election process,” and even incite supporters to become violent.

Becker said there are ways to fight back. He encouraged voters to sign up to be poll workers. People can also consume a variety of trusted new sources that challenge them.

“Our democracy is secure, and it's as resilient and transparent as it's ever been. That's just a fact,” Becker said. “The only people trying to weaken your confidence in that democracy are people who are losing.”