Facebook this week said it would bar political ads in the seven days before the presidential election. That could prevent dirty tricks or an “October surprise” and give watchdogs time to fact-check statements. But rather than responding with glee, election officials say the move leaves them worried.
Included in the ban are ads purchased by election officials — secretaries of state and boards of elections — who use Facebook to inform voters about how voting will work. The move effectively removes a key communication channel just as millions of Americans will begin to navigate a voting process different from any they’ve experienced before.
“Every state’s elections office has a very small communications office that is doing everything that they can to get the word out about the election,” said Gabe Rosenberg, the communications director for Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill (who is not related to this reporter). “This just makes it a little bit harder, for, as far as I can see, no real gain.”
The rule change was announced Thursday in a Facebook post by the site’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. Previously, Facebook’s rules for fact-checking certain campaign ads but not others have come under fire. Taken together, they demonstrate how Facebook has become an integral piece of the American democratic process — but one that is controlled by the decisions of a private corporation, which can set rules in its own interest.
For elections administrators, the last few days before an election can be the most stressful and when communication is needed most. They remind voters to mail back their absentee ballots and when Election Day voting begins and ends. Many of these ads can still be run under Facebook’s new rules, as long as they’re set up more than a week before the election.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, local election offices are scrambling to find new ways for eligible voters to cast their ballots. Voting methods and locations will be changing fast, even within the seven-day window included in Facebook’s ban.
A few days before Connecticut’s primary election on Aug. 11, Hurricane Isaias struck the state, knocking out power to more than a million people. That led Connecticut’s governor to make a subtle, but crucial, change to the state’s election rules on the day before the election. He instructed elections officials to count mail-in ballots that had been postmarked by election day, instead of only those that had arrived by election day.
With power still out to tens of thousands of people and businesses, “it was really important that we told people that they only needed to postmark their ballots by election day, because the little bit of news they were getting was that the Postal Service was down,” Rosenberg said. The Postal Service’s sorting hub in Hartford had lost power for a time after the storm.
“The only way we can notify people of something changing that late in the process is via Facebook and Instagram,” he said, citing the decline of local print news and the power outage making TV out of the question. The office spent about $2,000 on ads in the week before the state’s primary, according to Facebook’s published data.
There are other scenarios under which election administrators might have an urgent need to communicate changes to voters. Dozens of cases that could affect voting rules are wending their way through state courts, including ones that govern how mail-in ballots are processed and whether felons are able to vote. A key decision could easily be made just days before Nov. 3.
Just this week, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced a $250 million donation meant, in part, to help expand voting locations, which could result in new polling places opening late in the process.
Facebook’s newly announced rules only apply to new ads about “social issues, elections or politics.” Ads placed beforehand can continue running.
Without a key way to communicate how polling places are changing, the chances mount that potential voters will miss important information.
Facebook said it is trying to help elections officials, not hinder them. “We’re committed to supporting the important work election administrators do to make voting possible,” Tom Channick, a Facebook spokesperson, said in a statement. He cited new Facebook tools for election administrators, including “Voting Alerts” and a page on Facebook that offers information on how to vote.
Unlike ads, the alerts don’t appear on Instagram, only on Facebook. They appear on the voting information page, but they wouldn’t show up in a user’s news feed unless they had previously subscribed to updates from the election administrators’ Facebook page. And Facebook won’t let election administrators use the voting alert tool unless their Facebook pages do not include the name or a photograph of the officeholder. Connecticut’s page, for instance, does include such information, as do the pages of elections officials in many other states.
Facebook told ProPublica that it’s sticking to its decision to include election-administration ads in the ban, but has offered to help administrators change their pages to be able to use Voting Alerts and says it’s considering ways to show the alerts more broadly.
Rosenberg says an easy solution would be to exempt election administrators’ ads from the temporary ban — or to stop counting their ads as political and forcing them to include “Paid for by” disclaimers like ads from campaigns.
That’s a solution that Facebook has used before. Facebook exempted news organizations’ ads that promoted news stories from being treated as political after pushback that the site was conflating ads for journalism with political propaganda. Facebook didn’t, however, exempt ads from the U.S. Census Bureau that urged people to fill out the census.
Rosenberg says he’s pressed Facebook for an answer about why their political ads rules apply to election administrators’ ads. He hasn’t gotten one.
“These aren’t political ads. These are the basic civic building blocks of a democracy,” Rosenberg says. “We’re just trying to make sure that voters have the info that they need in order to participate.”
Hundreds of Thousands of Nursing Home Residents May Not Be Able to Vote in November Because of the Pandemic
Renowned inventor Walter Hutchins has voted in every presidential election since 1952. This year, as many states stopped sending teams to help seniors vote, his nursing home was on coronavirus lockdown and his streak was in jeopardy. Read the story.
Renowned inventor Walter Hutchins has voted in every presidential election since 1952. This year, as many states stopped sending teams to help seniors vote, his nursing home was on coronavirus lockdown and his streak was in jeopardy.
What the Post Office Needs to Survive a Pandemic Election
Fueled by the president’s unfounded claims about rampant mail-in voter fraud, and reports of sorting equipment being removed, the plight of the United States Postal Service has captured America’s attention. Will it collapse? Here’s what you need to know.
For Election Administrators, Death Threats Have Become Part of the Job
In a polarized society, the bureaucrats who operate the machinery of democracy are taking flak from all sides. More than 20 have resigned or retired since March 1, thinning their ranks at a time when they are most needed. Read the story.
In a polarized society, the bureaucrats who operate the machinery of democracy are taking flak from all sides. More than 20 have resigned or retired since March 1, thinning their ranks at a time when they are most needed.
Fueled by the president’s unfounded claims about rampant voter fraud, and reports of equipment being removed, the plight of the United States Postal Service has captured America’s attention. Will it collapse? Here’s what you need to know.
On Friday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy reassigned or displaced 23 executives, which analysts say centralized power around DeJoy. He claimed that his recent sweeping changes to the Postal Service aren’t at the president’s behest. (The Washington Post, The Guardian)
Financial disclosures revealed that DeJoy still holds a multimillion-dollar stake in a USPS contractor; experts said the stake is likely a conflict of interest and were shocked that agency ethics officers approved it. (CNN)
The CDC says Milwaukee didn’t see a spike in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations or deaths after the April Wisconsin primary. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
More than 200 Ohio health care professionals sent a letter to the secretary of state calling for minimum requirements for polling places in the fall, including enforced social distancing and a mask mandate. (Cleveland.com)
Two employees at a Kansas county clerk office were diagnosed with COVID-19, and the other two employees were quarantined before this week’s primary. (Topeka Capital-Journal)
How Voter-Fraud Hysteria and Partisan Bickering Ate American Election Oversight
The federal Election Assistance Commission has neglected key responsibilities or ceded them to other agencies — and two of its four commissioners are parroting the president’s unfounded warnings about vote by mail. Read the story.
The federal Election Assistance Commission has neglected key responsibilities or ceded them to other agencies — and two of its four commissioners are parroting the president’s unfounded warnings about vote by mail.
“Outright Lies”: Voting Misinformation Flourishes on Facebook
While the social media giant says it opposes voter suppression, the data shows a stark picture: Nearly half of all top-performing posts that mentioned voting by mail were false or misleading. Read the story.
Announcing Four Electionland Reporting Project Grants
This year, the collaborative project will include four local reporting projects that ProPublica will fund and will co-publish with partners. Read more here.
As part of our Electionland project, we’re announcing four grants that will support local reporting projects on voting.
Electionland is a collaborative project to cover voting problems, misinformation and cybersecurity. Now in its third election cycle, the project has already signed up more than 60 local and national newsrooms in 2020 to participate. Journalists working in newsrooms can find out more and sign up to join the collaboration, which will give them access to data and reporting leads to help cover voting rights and election integrity.
On April 3, Terrence K. Williams, a politically conservative actor and comedian who’s been praised by President Donald Trump, assured his nearly 3 million followers on Facebook that Democrats would light ballots on fire or throw them away. Wearing a red “Keep America Great” hat, Williams declared, “If you mail in your vote, your vote will be in Barack Obama’s fireplace.” The video has been viewed more than 350,000 times.
Absentee voting in Delaware was 11 times higher than in 2016. About half of Democratic voters voted by mail, while less than 30% of Republican voters did. (Delaware Public Media)
New Jersey’s primary was held largely by mail; most voters who showed up to the polls had to vote with a provisional ballot. In one county, a snafu resulted in the post office returning mail ballots to some voters. (The New York Times, New Jersey Globe)
After charges of absentee voting fraud in Paterson, New Jersey, state officials said they were taking measures to ensure ballot security. (The Wall Street Journal)
New Jersey briefly shut down its polling place finder website after it was discovered that it was providing inaccurate information to some users. (NJ.com)
Voting rights for some 83,000 ex-felons were restored in New Jersey this year. (The Guardian)
In an interview with NPR, Attorney General William Barr claimed, without offering proof, that mail voting isn’t secure because people could steal ballots from mailboxes. Asked for specific evidence, he could not cite any. (NPR)
The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project found that more than 18,000 mail ballots weren’t counted during Florida’s March primary. Younger voters, first-time voters, and Latino and Black voters were more likely to have their ballots rejected. While the overall percentage is small (1.3% of all votes), thin margins in Florida could be key in the fall. (Tampa Bay Times)
ProPublica’s Electionland project covers problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Our coalition of newsrooms around the country are investigating issues related to voter registration, pandemic-related changes to voting, the shift to vote-by-mail, cybersecurity, voter education, misinformation, and more.
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