Google reportedly took five days to review misleading ads from an organisation that echoes the U.S. president’s crock about voting by mail, and then declined to take them down essentially because of a technicality.
According to a Washington Post report this week, the ads aimed to discourage voters from using the U.S. Postal Service, which U.S. President Donald Trump has frequently denounced in a self-professed attempt to rig the election, to deliver their ballots. The report contends that these ads contained misleading information about the difference between absentee ballots and mail-in voting, and popped up for searches of mail-in voting in several key battleground states, including Florida, Michigan, Iowa, Arizona, Texas and Georgia, according to University of Washington researchers.
One ad purportedly claimed that most voters “think mail-in voting and absentee voting are the same.” But, it warned, “Think again! There are different safeguards for each.”
Most states use the terms mail-in ballots and absentee ballots interchangeably, and they’re all subject to the same verification process. In short, absentee and mail-in voting have essentially become synonymous, to the point that the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan public officials’ association, has adopted the term “absentee/mailed ballots” to refer to all ballots mailed out to voters, as the Post notes.
So, in general, they mean the same thing, but there is technically an exception. Some states allow absentee ballots to be mailed in and delivered in-person to polling locations, meaning that while all mail-in ballots are still absentee ballots, not all absentee ballots are necessarily mailed in. Get it? And it’s through this slimy little distinction that Protect My Vote, the little-known group who sponsored the ads, was able to skirt the line of Google’s policies.
A source with Google disputed the Post’s claim that these ads popped up in several states, and told Gizmodo on Saturday that they only appeared in Iowa, one of the states that allow voters to submit their absentee ballots in person. That makes the ad’s claim that there’s a difference between mail-in voting and absentee voting technically true, even if all the information pointed to on its website once the user clicks the ad is significantly more misleading.
A prominent banner on Protect My Vote’s site reads “Think mail-in voting is problem free? Think again” followed by a quote about supposed voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election from Hans von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commission official and current manager at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank. Back in 2018, a federal judge vehemently debunked Spakovsky’s voter fraud research when he took the stand as an expert witness, ruling that his claims were cherry-picked bullshit and not backed up by solid findings.
Searching for each U.S. state’s mail-in voting restrictions brings up more patented falsehoods. For example, Protect My Vote claims that Iowa requires a person’s ID and proof of residence for absentee voting but not for mail-in voting, and maintains that mail-in voting isn’t available at all in the state.
Neither of those statements is true, and the very government website the page links to for additional information uses the terms mail-in voting and absentee voting interchangeably. I searched for my home state of Virginia and found identical results. According to Protect My Vote’s site, mail-in voting is unavailable in Virginia, which, if so, someone needs to let officials know because they let me register for it this week.
Facebook recently struck down similar ads from Protect My Vote on its platform, citing the organisation’s use of “voter suppression tactics” in an interview with the Post. While Google has similar guidelines in place, it maintains that Protect My Vote’s ads on its platform differed from those on Facebook and their claims didn’t amount to misinformation for the reasons listed above.
“We have zero tolerance for ads that employ voter suppression tactics or undermine participation in elections. When we find those ads, we take them down,” a Google spokesperson said.
It’s one of those situations where it’s like, OK, I guess you’re technically right, but anyone with two brain cells to rub together can recognise that these kinds of misleading ads spell trouble. Because surely allowing disinformation campaigns about mail-in voting at a time when most people are too scared of getting sick to go to the polls won’t have any effect on the democratic process this November. Of course they’re harmless.