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Fighting bogus claims a growing priority in election offices

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Fighting bogus claims a growing priority in election offices

Election officials preparing for the rapidly approaching midterm elections have one more headache: trying to combat misinformation that sows distrust about voting and results while fueling vitriol aimed at rank-and-file election workers.

Some states and counties are devoting more money or staff to a problem that has only grown more concerning since the 2020 presidential election and the false claims that it was marred by widespread fraud. A barrage of misinformation in some places has led election officials to complain that Facebook parent Meta, Twitter and other social media platforms aren’t doing enough to help them tackle the problem.

“Our voters are angry and confused. They simply don’t know what to believe,” Lisa Marra, elections director in Cochise County, Arizona, told a U.S. House committee last month. “We’ve got to repair this damage.”

Many election offices are taking matters into their own hands, starting public outreach campaigns to provide accurate information about how elections are run and how ballots are cast and counted. That means traveling town halls in Arizona, “Mythbuster Mondays” in North Carolina and animated videos in Ohio emphasizing the accuracy of election results. Connecticut is hiring a dedicated election misinformation analyst.

Still, the task is daunting. Despite Oregon putting additional money into joining a national #TrustedInfo2022 campaign, misinformation continues to reach social media and force local election officials to respond, taking time from other duties.

Ben Morris, spokesperson for the Oregon secretary of state’s office, cited three recent Facebook posts that Meta allowed to remain on Facebook despite his office providing evidence to them that they were false.

One alleged a candidate’s name had been improperly censored from election fliers. Another falsely asserted that one party was purposefully denied access to a local elections office. Yet another claimed inaccurately that election workers in Multnomah County were being required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

“Meta’s policies are too limited to address the misinformation we see at a state and local level,” Morris said. “Their policies cover big national issues, but false posts about a county clerk or a state law aren’t removed. When you realize this could be happening at Meta’s scale, it’s deeply concerning.”

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The disconnect may be that Facebook policies “prioritize provably false claims that are timely, trending and consequential.” All three posts Morris referenced were presumably too localized to have “trended,” though he contends they were still damaging.

They also were posted by candidates for office, a group that includes a growing number of election deniers and whose speech social media companies strive to protect.

Meta spokesperson Corey Chambliss said the policies exempt much of what politicians say online because of “Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is.”

But he said those protections are waived in cases of direct election interference or threats of violence or intimidation.

In Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa, candidates shielded by those protections have liberally posted misinformation during this year’s election cycle. That has prompted officials to aggressively condemn the false narratives themselves.

When a candidate for county supervisor encouraged supporters to steal ballot-marking pens given to them at polling places on Election Day during the state’s August primary, the county attorney, Rachel Mitchell, wrote warning her to stop. The candidate pushed false claims that the pens allow election workers to change people’s votes.

And when Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake made unsupported claims of potential fraud ahead of the primary, Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates told local reporters her claims were “beyond irresponsible.”

“They never brought any specifics to us,” said Gates, a fellow Republican.

He said he has been more vocal on social media and more available to traditional media than ever before this year, in an effort to tamp down false election claims before they get out of hand.

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Gates and County Recorder Stephen Richer regularly respond directly to false Twitter posts with the facts. Richer said his department also emails Twitter when it sees a misleading narrative or threats against election workers gathering steam online, though it has disagreed with some of the platform’s responses.

When debunked claims about the county deleting election data off a server in 2021 resurfaced at an activist-led “election security forum” three days before the state’s August primary, the presenters publicly identified two election workers they claimed were responsible and called their actions a crime. That prompted threats and harassment against the workers online, part of a disturbing trend affecting election offices across the country.

Richer said the county wrote to Twitter in hopes of muting the hate, but the platform “didn’t always agree” that the content violated its policies.

Last month, Twitter activated enforcement of 2022 election integrity policies intended to “enable healthy civic conversation on Twitter, while ensuring people have the context they need to make informed decisions about content they encounter.” The company’s efforts included unveiling state-specific pages with live election updates featuring tweets from election officials and local reporters. The platform didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Video app TikTok, whose growing popularity has made it yet another hub for misinformation this election cycle, announced last month it is launching an election center that will help people find voting locations and candidate information. The platform said it works with over a dozen fact-checking organizations to debunk misinformation and will incorporate artificial intelligence as part of its efforts to detect and remove threats against election workers and push back against voting misinformation.

Not every state or county has Maricopa’s command of social media.

Relatively few county election offices have official presences on both Facebook and Twitter, according to a recent report by a pair of scholars who specialize in voter participation and the electoral processes, Mississippi State University’s Thessalia Merivaki and Connecticut College’s Mara Suttmann-Lea.

Many more local offices are on just one platform or the other, and the vast majority aren’t on either.

Legislation introduced in Congress earlier this year would provide $20 billion over the next decade to help state and local governments support election administration, which includes fighting misinformation.

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“Election after election, millions of Americans see inaccurate or misleading information about elections and the voting process on social media, and it is hurting our democracy,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is co-sponsoring the legislation, said during a hearing last spring.

When election officials battle through staffing, funding and personal safety concerns to get more involved on social media, voters of all ages — and particularly younger voters — become more engaged, according to the recent academic report on elections. The electorate benefits, the researchers wrote, “as does democracy itself.”

That’s just what the election supervisor’s office in Collier County, Florida, is trying to do.

In one TikTok video on her personal account, office spokesperson Trish Robertson snaps her fingers to the Sicilian song “Che La Luna” amid images of district maps, portraits of election officials and large windows that allow for public viewing during vote counting.

The lighthearted video from June, playing off a TikTok trend in which users display essential items in their homes and offices, is one of many efforts Robertson is making to restore voters’ trust. Besides posting to her own TikTok feed, she manages the county supervisor’s social media channels, hosts “transparency tours” of the office and responds to piles of public record requests, which often demand information that doesn’t exist.

Amid election falsehoods stoked by former President Donald Trump and amplified by his allies, Robertson said fighting misinformation “has pretty much become a full-time job.”

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Associated Press misinformation reporter David Klepper contributed to this report.

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

The patience of Memorial Day weekend travelers was tested Thursday by widespread delays across the country, but there were relatively few canceled flights, raising hopes that airlines can handle bigger crowds expected Friday.

By early evening on the East Coast, more than 6,000 flights had been delayed Thursday, with the biggest backups at the three major airports in the New York City area and Dallas-Fort Worth International.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

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Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

The Transportation Security Administration predicted that Friday will be the busiest day for air travel over the holiday weekend, with nearly 3 million people expected to pass through airport checkpoints. It could rival the record of 2.9 million, set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“Airports are going to be more packed than we have seen in 20 years,” said Aixa Diaz, a spokesperson for AAA.

When they aren’t waiting out flight delays, travelers are reporting sticker shock at the prices.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Larisa Latimer of New Lenox, Illinois, said her airfare was reasonable but other expenses for a getaway to New Orleans were not.

 

 

 

 

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Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

“I just have to make the accommodation,” she said. “The rental car is up … this year, the hotel accommodations were very unusually expensive.”

Kathy Larko of Fort Meyers, Florida, used frequent-flyer miles — and some flexible scheduling — to pay for her trip to Chicago.

“I’m really conscious of looking at the cost of the entire trip. We’re staying a little farther out than we normally would” to get a lower hotel rate, she said. “We’re also flying back a day later, because we could get cheaper miles.”

More travelers will be on the road. AAA estimates that 43.8 million people will venture at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home between Thursday and Monday, with 38 million of them taking vehicles.

 
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Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Airport unions are using the holiday weekend to highlight their demands.

About 100 workers who clean airplane cabins and drive trash trucks at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, started a 24-hour strike Thursday, demanding better pay and healthcare, according to the Service Employees International Union. About 15% of flights were delayed, but it was unclear whether the strike played any role.

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A planned strike at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was averted, however. Teamsters Local 553, which represents about 300 workers who refuel passenger and cargo jets at JFK, said that it reached a settlement with Allied Aviation Services and called off a walkout planned for Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

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“We are happy an agreement has been reached, a need for a strike averted, and we are hopeful that the deal will be ratified by our members,” said Demos Demopoulos, the secretary-treasurer of the local.

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Associated Press video journalist Melissa Perez Winder in Chicago and Associated Press radio reporter Shelley Adler in Washington contributed to this report.

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas’ health department has appointed an outspoken anti-abortion OB-GYN to a committee that reviews pregnancy-related deaths as doctors have been warning that the state’s restrictive abortion ban puts women’s lives at risk.

Dr. Ingrid Skop was among the new appointees to the Texas Maternal Morality and Morbidity Review Committee announced last week by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Her term starts June 1.

The committee, which compiles data on pregnancy-related deaths, makes recommendations to the Legislature on best practices and policy changes and is expected to assess the impact of abortion laws on maternal mortality.

Skop, who has worked as an OB-GYN for over three decades, is vice president and director of medical affairs for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion research group. Skop will be the committee’s rural representative.

Skop, who has worked in San Antonio for most of her career, told the Houston Chronicle that she has “often cared for women traveling long distances from rural Texas maternity deserts, including women suffering complications from abortions.”

Texas has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the U.S., and doctors have sought clarity on the state’s medical exemption, which allows an abortion to save a woman’s life or prevent the impairment of a major bodily function. Doctors have said the exemption is too vague, making it difficult to offer life-saving care for fear of repercussions. A doctor convicted of providing an illegal abortion in Texas can face up to 99 years in prison and a $100,000 fine and lose their medical license.

Skop has said medical associations are not giving doctors the proper guidance on the matter. She has also shared more controversial views, saying during a congressional hearing in 2021 that rape or incest victims as young as 9 or 10 could carry pregnancies to term.

Texas’ abortion ban has no exemption for cases of rape or incest.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which says abortion is “inherently tied to maternal health,” said in a statement that members of the Texas committee should be “unbiased, free of conflicts of interest and focused on the appropriate standards of care.” The organization noted that bias against abortion has already led to “compromised” analyses, citing a research articles co-authored by Skop and others affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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Earlier this year a medical journal retracted studies supported by the Charlotte Lozier Institute claiming to show harms of the abortion pill mifepristone, citing conflicts of interests by the authors and flaws in their research. Two of the studies were cited in a pivotal Texas court ruling that has threatened access to the drug.

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

A Michigan dairy worker has been diagnosed with bird flu — the second human case associated with an outbreak in U.S. dairy cows.

The male worker had been in contact with cows at a farm with infected animals. He experienced mild eye symptoms and has recovered, U.S. and Michigan health officials said in announcing the case Wednesday.

A nasal swab from the person tested negative for the virus, but an eye swab tested Tuesday was positive for bird flu, “indicating an eye infection,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said.

The worker developed a “gritty feeling” in his eye earlier this month but it was a “very mild case,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive. He was not treated with oseltamivir, a medication advised for treating bird flu, she said.

The risk to the public remains low, but farmworkers exposed to infected animals are at higher risk, health officials said. They said those workers should be offered protective equipment, especially for their eyes.

Health officials say they do not know if the Michigan farmworker was wearing protective eyewear, but an investigation is continuing.

In late March, a farmworker in Texas was diagnosed in what officials called the first known instance globally of a person catching this version of bird flu from a mammal. That patient reported only eye inflammation and recovered.

Since 2020, a bird flu virus has been spreading among more animal species — including dogs, cats, skunks, bears and even seals and porpoises — in scores of countries.

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The detection in U.S. livestock earlier this year was an unexpected twist that sparked questions about food safety and whether it would start spreading among humans.

That hasn’t happened, although there’s been a steady increase of reported infections in cows. As of Wednesday, the virus had been confirmed in 51 dairy herds in nine states, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fifteen of the herds were in Michigan.

The CDC’s Dr. Nirav Shah said the case was “not unexpected” and it’s possible more infections could be diagnosed in people who work around infected cows.

U.S. officials said they had tested 40 people since the first cow cases were discovered in late March. Michigan has tested 35 of them, Bagdasarian told The Associated Press in an interview.

Shah praised Michigan officials for actively monitoring farmworkers. He said health officials there have been sending daily text messages to workers exposed to infected cows asking about possible symptoms, and that the effort helped officials catch this infection. He said no other workers had reported symptoms.

That’s encouraging news, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who has studied bird flu for decades. There’s no sign to date that the virus is causing flu-like illness or that it is spreading among people.

“If we had four or five people seriously ill with respiratory illness, we would be picking that up,” he said.

The virus has been found in high levels in the raw milk of infected cows, but government officials say pasteurized products sold in grocery stores are safe because heat treatment has been confirmed to kill the virus.

The new case marks the third time a person in the United States has been diagnosed with what’s known as Type A H5N1 virus. In 2022, a prison inmate in a work program picked it up while killing infected birds at a poultry farm in Montrose County, Colorado. His only symptom was fatigue, and he recovered. That predated the virus’s appearance in cows.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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