Disinformation endangers democracy in NM and beyond, experts say

photo of voting location with people in line
Voting site in Albuquerque, Election Night, Nov. 2, 2021. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

How conspiracy theories are infecting the election cycle and jeopardizing voting rights. Republished from Source NM as part of worldwide “Democracy Day” coverage.

By Andrew Beale / Source NM

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly declared Sept. 15 as the International Day of Democracy in order to “encourage and promote democratization, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Fifteen years later, the UN secretary general is warning that democracy is under threat globally — and experts say New Mexico is facing many of the same perils.

“Across the world, democracy is backsliding,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said in a message to mark this year’s International Day of Democracy. “Distrust and disinformation are growing. And polarization is undermining democratic institutions. Now is the time to raise the alarm.”

Source New Mexico asked experts and watchdog groups what they view as the biggest threats to democracy across the nation — and in the state — today. They highlighted many of the same themes as Guterres, singling out election-related disinformation as one of the main challenges in the state and nationally.

Anna Grzymala-Busse, a professor of international studies at Stanford, said conspiracy theories focused on denying the results of the 2020 election are a “major, major problem” for democracy.

“If we don’t have trust in the most fundamental of democratic institutions, if anytime somebody loses, it’s a stolen election… then that basically makes it impossible for democracy to function,” she said. “It also makes it more likely that people will take to arms and to violent means to get what they want.”

Rachel Epstein, a professor of international relations and European politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at Denver University, raised similar concerns about disinformation.

“Outright lying is definitely a threat to democracy, especially when it’s political leaders that are engaging in spreading those untruths,” she said. “Under the falsehoods that part of the Republican party is now propagating, you have misinformed, extremist and violent groups engaging in sporadic military activities. And there you can see pockets of social disruption and violence in ways that really foment political instability and further polarization.”

Undermining democracy in New Mexico

Local policymakers and watchdog groups said the threat is growing in New Mexico, as well.

Mario O. Jimenez III, the campaign director for nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause New Mexico, said disinformation can have a destabilizing effect on the electorate. 

“We continue to have candidates and sitting elected officials spread lies regarding the elections,” Jimenez said. “It is a danger, because it does create a distrust in the electoral process and in government in general.”

Austin Weahkee (Cochiti, Zuni, Navajo), political director for New Mexico Native Vote, agreed that disinformation is one of the major threats facing both Native and non-Native voters in New Mexico.

“Number one, obviously, we have a lot of election misinformation which still tends to go around about how people are supposed to vote,” he said. “It can be very difficult to drill down into what’s real and what’s not, especially if you’re not following the correct sources like the Secretary of State.”

“Election workers of every political stripe in every community in New Mexico are being defamed and demonized for just doing their jobs,” said Abraham Sanchez, digital strategist and disinformation manager for the left-wing organization ProgressNow New Mexico. “We are trekking towards a place where we might not be able to have elections anymore, because who would want to work in that kind of environment.”

ProgressNow NM Executive Director Alissa Barnes said that the efforts of election deniers and conspiracy theorists to reconfigure the voting system, if unchecked, could bring a permanent end to the democratic system in the U.S.

“Worst case scenario, doomsday, it could literally unravel our entire Constitution,” she said. “The implications of not being able to have the public genuinely participate in the voting process goes all the way to how we live our lives and what freedoms we have access to or don’t.”

Many experts singled out David and Erin Clements and the Otero County Commission as the most significant promoters of disinformation in New Mexico. The Clements have become national figures on the election-denial circuit, spreading false and debunked conspiracy theories about voting machines and supposed election fraud. They’ve also exerted influence over politics in New Mexico, encouraging county officials to reject election results for the June primaries.

READ: The two people behind the election denial movement in New Mexico

The Otero County Commission voted in June to reject the results of the primary election, following a presentation by the Clements urging them not to certify the vote. The New Mexico Supreme Court stepped in and ordered the commission to certify the election, which they did by a 2-1 vote several days after voting unanimously not to certify. 

The lone remaining no vote was cast by now-former Commissioner Couy Griffin, who last week was removed from office by a judge’s order. The judge found Griffin was constitutionally barred from holding public office due to his participation in the insurrection attempt at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Officials in other counties including Torrance and Sandoval Counties, voted to reject or delay certification as well, although every county in New Mexico ended up certifying the results.

“I would say that between Couy Griffin, and David and Erin Clements, they are the biggest promoters of disinformation in this state,” Barnes said.

Nonpartisan groups, including Common Cause New Mexico and the League of Women Voters New Mexico, mentioned the Clements and the Otero County Commission as major forces undermining democracy in the state.

Griffin “provided a platform for an advocate who continues to travel the country grifiting and making false claims… Mr. Clements,” said Jimenez of Common Cause. “And so that alone is a huge disservice and a threat to our democracy.”

Neither Griffin nor the Clements responded to a request for comment for this piece. 

“There are a lot of really dramatic threats, things like the deniers in Otero County, Torrance, Sandoval,” said League of Women Voters New Mexico President Hannah Burling. 

READ: Election deniers rally behind an unrepentant Couy Griffin

In an emailed response to a request for comment, David Clements accused Source New Mexico of spreading “Marxist propaganda” and said he takes “tremendous satisfaction that your blogging efforts have had zero effect on our success in waking up people all over the country.” He added “Give my regards to the cabal you serve.”

Source New Mexico is an independent outlet under the umbrella of States Newsroom, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing news coverage of underserved areas. A full list of all donors to States Newsroom that have given over $500 can be found here.

Erin Clements said the couple is doing “the important work of shining a light on just how ridiculously porous our election system is.”

The Clements were vocal critics of an election reform bill in New Mexico that saw support from both parties but eventually died at the end of the 30-day legislative session. Several people cited the Clements’ misinformation during public comment regarding the elections bill. In a telephone interview, Couy Griffin asserted that the real threat to democracy was his removal from office.

“By removing me, who was their duly elected, democratically elected county commissioner, only to be replaced by who the governor chooses to represent the people. And if that’s not a slap in the face of democracy, I don’t know what would be,” he said.

Griffin was removed from office by a judge pursuant to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed by the Senate in 1866.

Threats of violence

Chuck Tanner, research director at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), said he fears a repeat of Jan. 6 at a local level, with election deniers using violence to overturn the results of state elections.

“In all likelihood, if there was an effort to actually gain some traction overthrowing an election it would be at the state level, which would provoke a national crisis,” he said.

Alex Curtas, a spokesperson for N.M. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, said disinformation about elections is dangerous because it can spur believers to action, including harassing and threatening election officials. 

Toulouse Oliver recently testified to Congress about threats she’s received from people who believe the 2020 election was stolen.

“For people who believe their government is corrupt and their leaders are not legitimate, threats of physical violence and acts of intimidation have, unfortunately, begun to seem like acceptable responses,” Toulouse Oliver told the committee. 

Those actions stem from misinformation, Curtas said.

“It all boils back down to misinformation and lies about the fundamental aspects of our electoral system and our democracy,” he said. 

Curtas said a further danger is that if voters elect conspiracy theorists to positions of influence over the electoral system, they could use those positions to undermine the voting system.

READ: NM Secretary of State testifies before Congress about threats against election officials

“When people who have no election-administration experience, plus, they have been spewing lies about our elections, the idea that they would then be able to take the reins of power in these elected offices that have some kind of purview over the way elections are conducted is really frightening,” he said.

Restricting voters at the ballot box

Experts agreed that aside from the potential for violence, election deniers can use their influence to restrict voting rights, especially for communities who’ve historically been excluded from elections or hindered at the polls, such as African Americans and Native Americans.

That bears out in what’s happening in southern New Mexico, too, said Tanner from the research institute.

“You know, there’s a big misnomer that these people are kind of abstractly anti-government. As (Otero County) shows, they want to be the government, and they want to basically overthrow democracy,” he said. “They want a radically restricted idea of political rights and political membership in the country that would overthrow American democracy. Some of them want to go back before the Reconstruction,” the period after the Civil War. 

In that period of American history, the Fifteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”.

Epstein of Denver University said right-wing policies that reinforce existing inequalities pose a threat to democracy by making it harder for marginalized people to exercise their rights.

“If you’re Black and a child, you’re three times more likely than a white child to be growing up in poverty. As long as those inequalities exist, it’s really difficult to achieve full voter enfranchisement,” she said.

Weahkee of New Mexico Native Vote said a lack of cyber and physical infrastructure in many Native and rural communities presents obstacles to voting for some residents.

“Infrastructure is just a huge issue. Not having internet access means you can’t same-day register,” he said. “If you have people that aren’t driving and don’t have reliable transportation, it can be almost impossible to vote.”

Access to translation can also present an obstacle for Native voters in New Mexico, Weahkee said.

“When you’re talking about Native language access, it immediately becomes a conversation where you have to have multiple different translators ready,” and polling places might not have translation available for every language spoken by voters, he said. “It honestly is no fault of anyone, it’s just a byproduct of not having a lot of Native language speakers left.”

Weahkee said the Navajo Nation is also facing a challenge to voting access this year, because voting in the U.S. federal election and the Navajo Nation presidential election takes place on the same day, but votes in the two elections are not necessarily cast at the same place.

“There are definitely going to be people that show up trying to vote for both their federal and their Navajo Nation candidates and find that, oh no, this is only a Navajo Nation election site,” he said. “That has consistently been an issue. I think it will be pretty well addressed through redistricting, but obviously nothing’s perfect.”

Burling, from the League of Women Voters New Mexico, pointed to gerrymandering as a significant threat to democratic representation in the state, particularly for Indigenous people. She pointed to a recent lawsuit accusing San Juan County of “packing” Navajo voters into a single district, thereby denying them equal representation in county politics. The process by which districts are drawn in the state needs to be reformed to prevent elected officials from abusing the system, she said.

“We are working toward an independent redistricting commission, because the league feels strongly that voters should be choosing their legislators, and legislators should not be choosing their voters,” she said.

Stanford’s Grzymala-Busse said the kinds of laws championed by election deniers — removing ballot drop boxes or outlawing absentee voting — erode democracy by making it harder for people to vote. 

READ: States target ballot drop boxes in fight over voting rights

They restrict the electorate, she said, and democracy “fundamentally rests on everyone’s votes being equally accessible and counted equally.”

Grzymala-Busse said she’s also worried by the potential for election deniers to get elected to offices that oversee elections, which would potentially allow them to declare a victor regardless of who received the most votes in an election.

“What I think are more scary are the vote subversion laws that many state legislatures are trying to pass. The idea that the state legislators would give themselves the right to count ballots,” she said. “Stalin once taught us: It’s not who votes. It’s who counts the votes.”

How to push back

Average voters must work against election disinformation in order to preserve democracy, experts and watchdogs underscored.

Burling of the N.M. League of Women Voter said folks concerned about the future of democracy should start at the local level.

“You can volunteer to be a poll worker,” she said. “you can make sure that your neighbors, family and friends are aware of issues. You can advocate for issues with your legislators and make sure that they know that you are there.” 

She encouraged people to look for trusted sources of information about elections, and recommended voters visit www.vote411.org, a website operated by the national league, for information about voting rights in their state and how to sign up as a poll worker.

Jimenez of Common Cause said the organization operates a hotline that voters can call if they witness intimidation or irregularities. The number is 866-687-8683 (866-OUR-VOTE) for the English language hotline and 888-839-8682 (888-VE-Y-VOTA) for the Spanish-language hotline.

IREHR’s Tanner said a mass movement of concerned voters is going to be necessary to overcome the threat posed by conspiracy theorists and election deniers.

“I think people need to realize that this is going to be a long struggle,” he said. “These groups are much more entrenched than they’re often portrayed as being, and we’ve seen gains by them. And it’s going to take people coming together and demanding that our communities respect everyone, and groups like this don’t get to decide the day.”

Andrew Beale
Andrew Beale

Andrew Beale has 15 years of reporting experience, starting with the UNM Daily Lobo. He’s reported for national and international publications including the New York Times, Vice and al-Jazeera from locations as far-flung as Portland and Palestine. He has a master’s degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and he resides in Southern California.