Reprinted with permission from Media Matters
Fox News is rolling out the next round of election-related conspiracy theories: This time, by casting doubt on the idea that a Democrat could win an election in the heavily Democratic state of California, where incumbent Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing a recall election backed by Republicans.
For what it's worth, recent polls from SurveyUSA, the Public Policy Institute of California, and even Republican polling firm Trafalgar Group have all put Newsom ahead by significant margins in the key vote to remain in office.
Fox News previously served a major role in former President Donald Trump's efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election. And beyond that, attempting to cast doubt on any Democratic win is on brand for Fox — network personalities also attacked the Georgia Senate runoffs while votes were being counted, including by casting suspicion on the high voter turnout in the election. And in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, part of the network's immediate response was to push for changes to voting lawsthat would help to suppress Democratic turnout, which the network then supported in the months afterward.
In that context, Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren claimed on Tuesday's edition of Outnumbered: "The only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud. So as they say, stay woke, pay attention to the voter fraud going on in California, because it's going to have big consequences not only for that state, but for upcoming elections."
And on Monday night, when Republican gubernatorial candidate and right-wing radio host Larry Elder appeared for an interview on Fox News Primetime, it was rotating host Rachel Campos-Duffy who brought up the subject of supposed election fraud: "A lot of people think you have the wind at your back but you seem to be concerned about some shenanigans that could be happening at the ballot box — or maybe in the mail."
Elder has indeed spread conspiracy theories about voting machines having been rigged in the 2020 presidential election, and suggested that this might happen again in the California recall, but in this instance he simply gave some rhetorical boilerplate on being "concerned about voter fraud," and said that his campaign website had a "voter integrity project set up with a bunch of lawyers ready to file lawsuits if anybody sees anything suspicious."
And last week, on the September 1 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson said that expanded usage of mail-in voting in multiple states, including in the case of California, were being done because Newsom "knows that mail-in ballots, which by definition lack any form of voter ID, cannot be verified. Those kind of ballots overwhelmingly benefit his party because they abet voter fraud."
Some in media have argued that these right-wing talking points picked up recently because the early statistics on returned ballots have indicated that Democratic voters are not sitting the election out, and therefore the groundwork must be laid for a conspiracy theory to explain a possible Republican loss.
To the extent that this explanation might be true, it should also be noted that the foundation was already being laid weeks ago, including by one of Fox News' most shameless and vitriolic promoters of election denialism: Newt Gingrich. Appearing on the August 22 edition of Sunday Morning Futures, in a segment reminiscent of host Maria Bartiromo and Gingrich's previous false claims about the 2020 election, the former GOP House speaker painted a lurid picture of vast election fraud in California:
NEWT GINGRICH (FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR): Frankly, what people ought to look at is this is going to be an election where they go all-out to steal the referendum. The secretary of state of California has now said you can print your own ballots. I mean, you think about this. You talk about the opposite of election integrity. They're going to allow you to print your own ballots. They're going to allow people to come around and harvest your ballot.
So, the unions will be out there, and they will make sure that everybody votes, even if they don't vote. And I think this may well be the most rigged statewide election we have seen probably in at least a half century.
And I think people should look carefully at this, because there's pretty good evidence that, if Newsom is in a straight, honest count, he probably — he has a good chance of losing. But if they can stuff every ballot box in California and they can cheat in every way possible — and so [Vice President Kamala Harris is] part of raising the money to pay for the cheating. I mean, it's just that simple. It's not complicated.
MARIA BARTIROMO (HOST): That is so extraordinary.
BARTIROMO: And that is the reason we continue to focus on all of these audits going on across the country. We want fair and free elections.
(Just to be clear, Gingrich's references to voters being able to "print your own ballots" involves a state program, known as the Remote Accessible Vote-by-Mail system, made in order to accommodate disabled voters and expanded during the pandemic, which has safeguards to ensure that a person can only print one ballot.)
At around that same time, Fox personalities also latched onto a local story involving a reported felon who was found in possession of 300 mail-in ballots — although it quickly became clear that these were among thousands of pieces of stolen mail, along with other items such as driver's licenses and credit cards, rather than the alleged thief having actually targeted the ballots specifically.
"There's nothing to indicate this was anything specifically to impact the election," a spokesman for the Los Angeles county clerk's office said. "It seems like this person was likely trying to steal mail."
The August 24 edition of Fox Business' The Evening Edit ran a segment with the loaded chyron asking, "Why were 300 mail-in ballots stolen in CA recall election?" — even though the ballots made up just a fraction of the overall theft of mail. Republican strategist Ford O'Connell claimed that "to be perfectly honest with you, with Gavin Newsom on the ropes, you have to think that this is just a little more than coincidental." He later upped the rhetorical ante even further: "Remember, Nancy Pelosi said she was going to activate her own operation. Maybe this is what she meant."
"We don't know — I know you're being facetious," responded host Elizabeth MacDonald, though there was not any indication of such an intent on O'Connell's part.
And on the August 25 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the host claimed that Democratic efforts to campaign for Newsom were themselves a threat to democracy: "Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now set to campaign against the recall — 'No more democracy for you!' You've got to wonder, will the state survive this? Will there be a free and fair election?"
He then interviewed Republican lawyer Harmeet Dhillon, who used the story as an example of supposed Democratic malfeasance: "Of course, they are playing fast and loose. We've seen some very alarming scenes of 300 ballots bundled together in the car of a person with a gun and some drugs, and so we are definitely looking into all of these issues."
Dhillon's invocation of the story was then followed by an on-screen visual of the stolen mail, which Carlson's production would have needed to already have prepared.
On the subject of ballots being thrown out, as well as the need to ensure a free and fair election, Dhillon previously served as a campaign legal adviser to Donald Trump in 2020. In the days following the election, she appeared with then-Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and spoke of the campaign's effort to have the Supreme Court intervene in the ongoing vote counts: "We're waiting for the United States Supreme Court — of which the president has nominated three justices — to step in and do something. And hopefully Amy Coney Barrett will come through."
So perhaps these people might not be approaching the California recall from a standpoint of supporting democracy.
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