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Disinformation and misinformation, alongside more blatant tactics of voter suppression, have plagued groups of voters across the South from rural Arkansas, to Black communities to Houston, to the coasts of Florida.
Scalawag and PEN America brought journalists and organizers together in conversation to shed light on how inaccurate information keeps folks from the polls and what watchdogs are doing to serve voters' needs this election cycle.
Host Anoa Changa sat down with three representatives from advocacy groups across the South to talk about which issues they see as most pressing in their communities. What they all jumped on first was the importance of creating strategies and tactics to disseminate critical information.
Watch the recap of the full As The South Votes Town Hall event:
What role does disinformation play in aiding or furthering voter suppression?
Those who are most susceptible to disinformation are the ones with the most at stake.
"We all see the lines. We see the national footage of Georgia. We know the issues here," Khondoker said. "So we work in partnership with other organizations—and at times in partnership with the Secretary of State's office, whenever possible—to ensure that we have policies in place that will make voting more accessible to more people."
The state of Georgia just started the process of implementing absentee ballot drop boxes in the state—something fairly new that a lot of voters may not know how to research. For Khondoker, combating misinformation means making sure that voters have access to critical voter education materials that they may not otherwise know about.
But such an easy partnership between state officials and voting advocacy groups may not be the case for many others in the South, Bennett said, citing Georgia itself as an example of how that process can fracture even when the public goes through the "proper" avenues.
"What we've been trying to do [in Mississippi] since we have an election every cycle is to make sure that we have clear sound information—and that it's accurate."
This contentious relationship between voters and state officials charged with providing accurate information is especially felt in Mississippi and Louisiana which have the highest percentage of Black residents in the country. In Louisiana, the Secretary of State and other state officials have had active roles in the way disinformation is created, Shelton said.
Nora Benavidez director of PEN America's U.S. Free Expression Programs cited that Black and brown voters are targeted with the most disinformation. She mentioned in her presentation that in 2016, there is evidence that Trump specifically labeled Black voters as "deterrents," meaning the campaign targeted Black voters as those who should be deterred from showing up at the polls.
Other popular media narratives, like that of voter fraud, can also fuel voter suppression—especially at a time when regulations are changing daily, causing new confusion with each fresh news cycle. That misdirection away from the issues at hand not only discourages voters from voting, but can result in apathy and "issue fatigue" for people with already hectic lives.
For Shelton, the emphasis lies on getting voters to not give up their energy so quickly despite boomeranging headlines. Shelton encouraged journalists to provide reassurance that there are organizations like hers working to defend their rights legally—so that people can focus on voting.
Benavidez extended the responsibility of holding media accountable to voters and news consumers themselves to help stop the spread of misinformation in their own communities, stressing the potential power that individuals who already have their community's trust can wield in bypassing barriers to access that those with a general distrust of news might experience.
Watch Next: How can we work to help more rural voters get engaged this cycle? "If we had enough voting power in our metro areas, we would already be living in the kind of state we want to live in."
Arekia Bennett has organized and empowered youth across Mississippi over the last 10 years. She serves as the Executive Director of Mississippi Votes, a statewide, millennial led, civic engagement non-profit organization that has engaged over 500,000 young people across the state. Since 2018, Mississippi Votes has registered around 15,000 new voters, many of them between the ages of 18 and 39, and many of whom were formerly incarcerated and or in prison. Mississippi Votes also advocates for policies to expand voting access in Mississippi.
Aklima Khondoker is All Voting is Local's Georgia State Director. Prior to joining the campaign, Khondoker worked as a staff attorney and the senior manager for the Voting Access Project at the ACLU of Georgia, where she focused on first and fourth amendment issues, women's reproductive freedoms, and voting rights. Her voting rights work in Georgia includes both litigation and advocacy. She's been involved in the development and execution of voting rights strategy that has included crafting policy and regulatory proposals, partnership development, monitoring local election boards, and successfully advocating for more voting sites.
Ashley Shelton is the Executive Director of the Power Coalition, a statewide 501c3 table in Louisiana. The Power Coalition uses a broad-based strategy that combines community organizing, issue advocacy, and civic action all while increasing the capacity of community organizations throughout the state to sustain and hold the work. Their integrated voter engagement approach has changed policy at the municipal and state level, and moved infrequent voters of color to vote at higher levels.