Election administrators in New Hampshire say they’re confident that the state’s Democratic primary will not be a repeat of this week’s Iowa caucus, which has been beset by tech issues and reporting delays. As of Thursday morning, the results still weren’t entirely reported, and the race was too close to declare a winner. “We fully expect that the results reported at the end of the night will be accurate, and the candidates will know who won the primary on time,” said New Hampshire deputy secretary of state David Scanlan.
Of course, there are key differences between the two states. Where Iowa does a caucus—meaning people hang out in person in school gyms and VFW halls for hours, declaring their allegiances and filling out complicated forms recording three rounds of vote tallies—the New Hampshire primary is much more like a straightforward election, run not by the parties but by the state government. More to the point, New Hampshire isn’t introducing an untested mobile app to the process, as the Iowa Democrats did this year to report the results. New Hampshire’s election administrators are proudly old school, continuing to use old-fashioned paper ballots and decades-old optical scanners that, Scanlan said, have had their modems and external ports disabled. As Secretary of State Bill Gardner—a Republican who, incredibly, has been in his position since 1976—likes to brag, “You can’t hack a pencil.”
But you don’t need a hack to sow chaos. The Iowa story wasn’t just about failed technology. It was about online disinformation and the way it feeds on irregularities both real and imagined. False claims about Iowa voters were going viral on social media even before the app havoc, and the reporting snafus inspired tweets from the left and the right about the vote being “rigged.”
The New Hampshire Democrats are on the alert, according to spokesperson Holly Shulman. The state party has taken several steps to get in front of disinformation, including recently publishing a document titled “How to Spot Disinformation Online—and What to Do About It.” That guide, aimed primarily at the more than a thousand local party delegates around the state, plus elected officials and activists, gives readers instructions for what to do if they come across fake accounts—flag it to the relevant platform and email the state party digital director—and advice for how to detect false memes and bot activity.
Plus, Shulman told me, many local Democratic Party chapters have “a designated person who’s monitoring local politics online, including looking for disinformation and misinformation.” She pointed out that New Hampshire is a small state with an unusually high number of elected officials: Its legislature has 424 members for a population of around 1.4 million. California, by contrast, has 120 members representing a population of 40 million. Perhaps as a result, political news—including of the shady variety—comes to the attention of party leaders quickly.
New Hampshire’s Democrats have already passed at least one disinformation warm-up test. It started last week, with a new Twitter account for a gubernatorial candidate. Nice fonts. Muted red, white, and blue color scheme. Outline of the Granite State. But why would anyone running to be governor of New Hampshire pick the slogan “For Himself”?
Well, because it was a fake account. If you thought @Feltes2020 was the handle of Dan Feltes, the majority leader of the New Hampshire state senate and Democratic candidate for governor, you would have been mistaken. In fact, it was created by the state Republican Party, as The Wall Street Journal first reported. If you clicked the link to Feltes2020.com, you’d end up on an anti-Feltes attack page. (Candidates out there, seriously, get on top of those domain purchases!)
State Democrats were ready. Within minutes of the account going live, Shulman said, the party had received emails flagging it from supporters around the state. They reported it to Twitter, which promptly took the account down.
But that was an easy, and relatively crude, case of disinformation. Iowa showed that the platforms are reluctant to police posts by Americans that spread rumors or suspicion but fall short of outright impersonation. As news of the Iowa mishaps emerged Tuesday night, Republicans kicked into high gear online, with everyone from Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale to Trump offspring Eric and Donald Jr. claiming that the caucus had been “rigged.” Facebook and Twitter have declined to take these posts down, since they don’t fit the narrow category of lies about when, where, or how to vote that the platforms have promised to remove. That means it will be up to party officials and their supporters to lead the charge.
Shulman says that misinformation, rather than disinformation, poses the bigger threat next week. “The worst fear is that someone says something, and even if they didn’t mean it to be untrue or misleading or wrong, it could create confusion,” Shulman said. “And I think anything that creates confusion could deter people from going to the polls.”
There are plenty of opportunities for non-malicious screw-ups in a high-profile event like a primary. Members of the media and other outside observers may not always be as familiar with the ins and outs of the process, like the way in which delegates are awarded, as they should. “Because of how many people are just coming into the state for the first time and covering our races, I think there might be a lack of context for some things that could result in misinformation,” Shulman said. Add in live tweeting and the ease with which things can go viral, and it can be a recipe for widespread confusion. The key, she said, is to respond quickly, before someone picks up the faulty information and runs with it—especially a campaign that might like to pounce on an incorrect report showing them in the lead. “If a campaign could grab onto it and try to promote that piece of misinformation,” she said, “by the time the certified vote comes out, it might cause some concern.”
Another priority for the party is to push out accurate information about voting. “We’ve seen in the past few weeks people saying that Republicans can vote in our primary—they can’t,” Shulman said. “And we responded.” More proactively, they’ve also published an online voter guide with quick links to voter registration, polling sites, and absentee voting.
There are, of course, cases that all the guides and data in the world appear unable to stop. In Iowa on Tuesday, the secretary of state (a Republican) quickly debunked a “report” from the right-wing activist group Judicial Watch claiming that voter registration rates in eight counties were higher than the number of adults living there. That didn’t prevent it from being boosted on Twitter and Facebook and used to argue for tighter voter ID laws.
New Hampshire is no stranger to electoral conspiracy mongering. Months after the 2016 election, Donald Trump himself clung to the discredited rumor that “thousands” of voters were bused over from Massachusetts to illegally cast ballots, costing him New Hampshire’s four electoral votes. Nebulous claims of fraud, meanwhile, underlay the state’s draconian voter ID law, passed in 2018, which has been criticized as surgically targeting (liberal-leaning) college students from out of state.
Following the 2016 election, most of the conversation about online fraud and manipulation focused on foreign actors. But many experts believe that domestic disinformation is now the more urgent concern. And it poses unique problems. “Amplification of domestic activity is something that’s very hard, if not impossible, for the federal government to respond to, given all of the appropriate First Amendment protections that lie around it,” said Matt Masterson, a senior cybersecurity adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, at a conference last year.
The platforms, meanwhile, may not be governed by the Constitution, but they have proven extremely leery of taking action against domestic accounts lest they fuel suspicions of political bias. That means the task of fighting mis- and disinformation will largely fall to players within the political system.
It’s too early to know what sort of impact the misleading messages swirling around the Iowa caucus had, or will have. But the episode makes clear that any electoral irregularity is oxygen for the flame of false rumors and disinformation. Whatever happens in New Hampshire next week, we probably haven’t seen the last of the flare-ups.
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