Minnesota braces for election year misinformation

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Minnesota voters expect the best. So Minnesota election officials prepare for the worst.

Disinformation. Cyberattacks. Dirty tricks. Threats. Atrocious weather.

Election officials from 50 counties met with FBI and Homeland Security officials at the National Guard training center in Camp Ripley this month. For hours, they ran through scenarios, planning responses to the worst 2024 could throw at us.

On the other side of the country, AI-generated robo-Bidens were cold-calling into New Hampshire, urging residents not to vote.

"It's the same old poison in a different bottle," Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said.

Early voting is underway in Minnesota's presidential primary. So far, so good. Not a deepfake or robo-Biden in sight. Possibly because Minnesota just made it a misdemeanor to deliberately spread disinformation within 60 days of an election.

This is a state with the highest voter turnout in the nation. Minnesotans take voting seriously.

But Minnesota has seen firsthand how bad a worst-case election scenario can be. In September 2020, a company in Tennessee posted a job opening, asking former members of the military to come to Minnesota and "help" law enforcement guard the polling places. Bring guns.

"I went out and barnstormed the state," said Simon, who kept reminding everyone of Minnesota's very sane and normal election rules. "No, the only people allowed within 100 feet of a polling place are voters, election workers and anyone who normally works in that building — a school, a church, whatever. You can't just show up with your gun."

As long as there have been elections, there have been dirty tricks. Technology just spreads the lies faster.

Simon remembers two decades ago, when hand-printed flyers leafleted some Milwaukee neighborhoods, telling residents that if their last name started with the letters A-L, they should vote on Tuesday, and if their name was in the back half of the alphabet, they were supposed to go to the polls on Wednesday.

Now technology has given us artificial-intelligence tech that can make phone calls and videos sound like anything and look like anyone. A recent deepfake video featured Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis apparently conceding his presidential campaign last September. You had to look closely to realize "DeSantis" never seemed to take a breath.

"All of us who are involved in elections and the administration of America's elections are nervous," said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.

Misinformation has always been a threat to our elections. Now those lies, Jacobs said, are bolstered by videos, photos and documents that look and sound credible, even when they're not.

"That's what AI has done," he said. "It's taken an age-old threat of rumors and lies and weaponized it in a way we've never seen."

That includes the flat-out lies about election fraud you may have heard your neighbors screaming about at public meetings. No, the voting machines aren't switching your vote. Minnesota uses paper ballots and if you were around in 2008, you know that this is a state willing to re-examine every single one just to make sure your vote counts.

There is an entire corner of the Secretary of State's website dedicated to separating election facts from election fiction. No, there weren't more votes cast in Minnesota than registered voters. Yes, there are people on the voter rolls with a birth date listed as "1900," but that doesn't mean they're fake voters — that's just a placeholder date for anyone who registered to vote before 1983 and hasn't moved since.

There is hope, if you look for it. You can find it at the University of Minnesota, where the Certificate in Election Administration has become one of the most in-demand online courses of its kind in the country.

Minnesota needs 30,000 workers to step up and help run the elections this November. They always step up. Election workers showed up for us during the pandemic, before we had a vaccine. When you step up to your polling place this year, they'll be there for you again.