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A clerical error by Colorado election officials weeks before the November election took on a conspiratorial nature, researchers have found via Twitter data.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections in the state, accidentally sent about 30,000 postcards to noncitizens who were not eligible to vote, containing instructions on how to register. At least some of the people who received the postcards are living in the country without permission.
Materials sent by the secretary of state’s office say only US citizens are eligible to vote, and the office says it has safeguards in place to prevent non-citizens from registering and voting. Colorado Public Radio first reported the error on Oct. 7, and an NPR Twitter account retweeted the story the same day.
Social media engagement with the story was flat over the weekend, according to Twitter data compiled by the University of Washington and Stanford University’s Partnership for Election Integrity, which tracks social media discourse about the election.
But tweets casting doubt on whether the reports were really an accident began almost immediately, says Mike Caulfield, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public.
The online focus on wrongdoing comes as Republicans allied with former President Donald Trump have used debunked conspiracy theories to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election, intimidate poll workers and make repeated false claims that Democrats are registering people , living illegally in the country to sway elections in their favor.
On Sunday, a conservative social media personality with about 20,000 followers tweeted “Colorado Accidentally Sent Voter Registration Notices to 30,000 Non-Citizen Residents” without further comment, accurate statement. Many of the replies to this tweet put quotation marks around the word “accidentally” or said things like “Riiiiii”.
“As it accelerates and gets into a larger audience, you start to see clearer claims—that they go beyond the wink, wink, nudge, nudge kind of thing that seemed to dominate early on,” Caffield says.
On Monday, Red country, a conservative website with nearly 300,000 Twitter followers, included the allusive quotation mark in the title of its story about the error. In the story, the writer argued that the error suggests the incident raises much larger issues with Colorado’s voter registration system.
A few hours later, the story gained even more momentum online when the Associated Press published its story about the mistake and conservative media personalities retweeted it.
By Tuesday, five days after the first story was published, former President Donald Trump posted a story about the conservative Daily Wire’s error on his Truth Social platform. That story also used a headline with quotation marks around the word “accidental,” even though the main body of the story included a quote emphasizing that policies were in place “to ensure that mistakes do not lead to disaster.”
Since Thursday, the story of mistaken voter registration cards has continued to gain momentum on Twitter, data from the Election Integrity Partnership shows.
An election-related malpractice, even if innocuous, “is often sort of the kernel of truth around which the larger, broader and often false claim grows,” Caulfield says.
“We have over 3,000 counties in the U.S. … in terms of the numbers game, you’re going to see mistakes made [in election administration]Caulfield says. “Fortunately, most of these errors that come up will have little impact because we’ve come up with systems and processes and checks and, you know, measures to mitigate that.”
In a statement, Colorado Secretary of State Jenna Griswold said her office recognizes the incident is likely to become a hotbed for actors seeking to cast doubt on the election. “We prioritized communicating with Coloradans quickly and transparently about the situation,” she said.
Asking questions about the electoral process is healthy, Caulfield says, but context is vital.
“When people start speculating and theorizing in this space without, you know, the background information, without the injection of expertise, without all these things that can make these conversations more productive,” he says. “Very often things go off the rails.”