Facebook Is Helping Encourage Voters to Break the Law

Facebook Is Helping Encourage Voters to Break the Law
Photo: Mandel Ngan, Getty Images

On Thursday, President Trump doubled down on the instructions he had given voters the day before: that those who voted by mail should also show up at polling locations and verify that their votes have been counted, and, if not, vote again. What Trump has now repeatedly directed people to do is a crime, whether or not anyone tries or gets caught. In 28 states, in fact, what Trump has told voters to do — to “go and vote” again after voting by mail — is a felony, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Without knowledge of how the election system works, it might seem as if Trump is merely be encouraging Facebook users to be hypervigilant about ensuring their votes are counted. However, his instructions, followed loosely or even to 0 T, can and likely will result in cases of double voting, which is a crime in every state.

Simply put, anyone who shows up at a polling locations to ask if their absentee ballots has been counted is likely to be told “no” (though hopefully what they hear is “not yet”). This is because absentee ballots are almost never counted until after the polls are closed. In Alabama and Florida, it’s actually a crime to release any information about the counting of absentee ballots until voting is over.

Facebook, whose actions and inaction over the years have imperiled the integrity of democratic processes worldwide (by its own admission, in some cases), has decided to wash its hands of this. We know it recognised that Trump’s post encourages his 30 million Facebook followers to break the law, potentially sowing chaos at countless polling places across the country, because it openly tried to do the least it is capable of doing in response. It did not warn its users, “Following this advice may result in your arrest,” but instead pretended that Trump was merely offering some illegitimate viewpoint on the overall “trustworthiness” of mail-in voting.

Namely, Facebook tagged the post with a disclaimer that just reads: “Voting by mail has a long history of trustworthiness in the US and the same is predicted this year.” It then cites the Bipartisan Policy Centre — an organisation most voters have never heard of and thus have no reason to trust — and directs them to a page with voting information that, in all seriousness, looks like it was decorated by someone’s kindergarten teacher.

This wasn’t even Facebook’s first attempt to respond to Trump’s blatantly reckless post, which also, by the way, likely violates the laws of several states. (In Kansas, for example, it is illegal to induce another person to vote twice.) Facebook’s first “disclaimer,” for lack of a better word, didn’t even attempt to address Trump’s post directly, simply telling users to, “Visit the Voting Information Centre for election resources and official updates.”

Facebook cannot be said by anyone in good faith to be doing anything to “crack down” on Trump’s “double-voting remarks” (despite what you might read in Politico). This is the complete opposite of cracking down. Facebook is the website Americans voters visit to get bombarded by dangerously inaccurate voting information.

For precisely this purpose, federal law grants Facebook all the authority to delete, correct, or even just challenge in some minor but meaningful way the spuriously claims of a powerful mega-user who is using abusing its product to mislead and misdirect the participants of a national election. Facebook is not a bystander or a passive observer of this behaviour. It holds all the power here. It is an active and willing participant in every lie its political customers propagate on its service.

The Trump campaign has given Facebook more than $US70 ($96) million this year alone. And in exchange for this deluge of wealth, Facebook is providing the Trump campaign the resources it needs to attack the election process. It is a transactional relationship. Trump is not just another common user whose free speech we must be defended at all cost.

Trump is driving proverbial dump trucks full of cash to Menlo Park.

Trump is using the full weight of the U.S. government to attack one of Facebook top competitors.

Trump meets personally, sometimes secretly, with Mark Zuckerberg, at his home.

The damage is already done; Facebook’s inaction saw to that. All one can hope for now is that poll workers have the proper resources and support at their disposal to get an already overly burdensome job done properly — because there are some safeguards built into the process. In the best-case scenario, election officials will know which voters received absentee ballots and, ideally, prevent those people from voting again (unless they surrender an unmailed absentee ballot first.)

That is how things are supposed to work, provided there are no kinks in the process, which, unfortunately, there often are. Nearly anyone, by the way, can obtain a provisional ballot simply by signing a piece of paper claiming the ballot they were mailed went missing. (Fingers crossed those get cross-checked properly, too.) But of course, there’s the mismanaged covid-19 crisis, which has led to a shortage of poll workers nearly everywhere. What level of chaos this might bring on Election Day is yet to be seen, though the characteristically long lines around urban voting centres are all but guaranteed.

Perhaps the biggest damage caused by Facebook’s inaction is the possibility that millions of people who’ve already voted show up at understaffed polling locations for literally no reason, extending the lines further, making social distancing even more difficult, and causing even more people to get sick — a small percentage of whom, we know, will die.

Anyone who shows up to the polls on Election Day demanding to know if their absentee ballot has already been counted is unlikely to be satisfied by the answer they receive — because the actual answer, in almost every case, will be “no.” That’s simply not how the process works. Hopefully very few take this response conspiratorially. Hopefully, they haven’t been listening too closely to Trump’s baseless, preemptive allegations that an election — the core processes of which haven’t even begun — will be “rigged” against him.

Hopefully, no one takes his advice and ends up in prison for it. It could cost them the right to vote. According to the Sentencing Project, of the 28 states in which double voting is a felony, 12 do not allow those with felony convictions to vote while imprisoned or on probation or parole. In eight states — Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, and Virginia — anyone convicted of voting twice would be prevented from ever casting another vote in that state.

We have to hope because that is the only option Facebook has left us with.