Reprinted with permission from Media Matters
Fox News prime time host Tucker Carlson on Wednesday night elevated a melange of conspiracy theories about the 2020 election that have circulated online among the right-wing fringe, seeking to discredit President Joe Biden's victory in Georgia and promote more efforts to recount ballots again.
In so doing, Carlson has placed his show — and with his leading position at Fox News, the entire network — back at the forefront of efforts to delegitimize the 2020 election and push the lies that led to the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Carlson Goes After Ballot-Scanners — Even After Georgia's Hand Recount
Since last week, Carlson had been teasing a segment on election "misconduct" in Fulton County, Georgia, which includes Atlanta. On Wednesday night, much of his monologue focused on alleged "fraud" involving the double-scanning of a few batches of ballots in the initial count from election night.
Just as with prior conspiracy theories about the election in Georgia, this scrutiny on ballot scans in the initial count is conveniently ignoring a simple fact: There was already a manual hand recount of the 5 million paper ballots in the state, which corrected a few mistakes in local areas but did not significantly alter Biden's victory in the state. As a result, the double-scanning of some small number of ballots in the initial count would no longer have an impact even in a very close race.
In this sense, this claim is similar to other lurid allegations about the election based on a small mistake genuinely did occur but was then blown up beyond any plausibility — even long after the error was already fixed.
Indeed, Trump gained more votes in Fulton County during the recount than Biden did, thus demonstrating that these small mistakes were found and corrected without bias in the process. Furthermore, other significant errors were found in a pair of pro-Trump counties, which when corrected in the recount served to eat into (but not reverse) Biden's overall statewide lead — and yet those errors in pro-Trump Georgia counties have not received the same attention or level of accusations as the election administration in a heavily Black, pro-Biden county.
The main claim at hand has been hyped online by discredited right-wing columnist John Solomon, former New York City police commissioner and Trump-pardoned felon Bernard Kerik, the QAnon-linked former U.S. Senate candidate Lauren Witzke, and former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon. Other claims in Carlson's monologue were also pushed by The Gateway Pundit, which also promoted Carlson's upcoming segment. Following Carlson's monologue, far-right outlets and figures including The Gateway Pundit, The Post Millennial, and Newsmax chief White House correspondent Emerald Robinson lauded his report.
The Goal: Another Ballot "Audit"
Carlson promoted claims by VoterGA, a group that has been part of a right-wing effort to hold another ballot audit targeting Fulton County — similar to the one in Maricopa County, Arizona, which has been promoted and fundraised for by One America News, in an effort to spread the "forensic audits" nationwide — even though in Georgia the entire state already recounted all its ballots by hand. The group, headed up by a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, enjoyed some legal victories that made scanned absentee ballot images publicly available, but ultimately most of its claims have been thrown out of court.
"We already know what happened. We've counted those same ballots four times. The election has been certified. Stop already," Carlson said mockingly. "And that's the argument that Fulton County has used in court to keep those ballots locked away in a warehouse. Except it's not true. It now appears there actually was meaningful voter fraud in Fulton County, Georgia, last November. That is not a conspiracy theory; it's true."
Carlson's Claims Are Wrong — And Easy To Debunk
While Carlson seemed confident and authoritative in his assertions of serious election malfeasance, it is worth cataloging in brief terms the ways in which so many of his statements were not only false, but easily disprovable.
- At the 4 minute mark, Carlson asserted that "the strongly left-of-center Atlanta Journal-Constitution appears to agree with this, at least in outline," having reviewed the digital ballot images and found doubles. However, Carlon omitted that the paper also made clear these mistakes would have occurred before the recount, and that as a result of such corrective processes, there was "no indication any vote for president was counted more than once in official results." (Carlson also claimed that the error affected more than 4,000 ballots — the Journal-Constitution put the number at 200.)
- At the 6:10 mark, Carlson claimed mockingly that "the county claims that any errors were caught in previous recounts," then saying this was not true — though he did not provide any evidence that the error would have been repeated in a hand recount.
- At the 6:33 mark, Carlson urged his viewers to "pay attention" to a video clip of an election worker inserting the same ballots into a scanner multiple times. However, the reinsertion of ballots into optical scanners can occur for normal reasons, such as when there was some problem in the initial scan and a stack had to be run through again.. An expert who debunked other examples of conspiracy theories in Michigan compared the rerunning of a ballot to "a vending machine returning a dollar bill that was inserted incorrectly." (From here, a person can also imagine how mistakes of double-counting could pop up from time to time.)
- At the 7:20 mark Carlson read the VoterGA claim that tally sheets in the recount had been falsified, with reports of batches of ballots giving unanimous totals of 100 or 850 votes for Biden. "How is that not flat-out criminal fraud?" Carlson asked. "We'd love to know, because it certainly sounds like flat-out criminal fraud." This claim has also circulated for months, and it's already been explained: In a recount situation for just one race on the ballot — that is, the presidency — election workers often sort ballots by candidate as they count, so there end up being counted piles entirely for one candidate or the other.
- At the 9:05 mark, Carlson promoted another set of claims, recently spread by The Federalist, that nearly 35,000 Georgia voters had moved to another county within the state but still voted in their old county. Carlson said that "violating election law is something we should care about and by law their vote should have been excluded from the total, but they were not excluded." However, despite the site's sensationalist headline "New Evidence Indicates Enough Illegal Votes In Georgia To Tip 2020 Results," even the article's own text acknowledged that such moves "could have been temporary, involving students or members of the military" and noted that "under Georgia law temporary relocations do not alter citizens' residency status or render their votes illegal."
Carlson Says There Was No Insurrection — But Threatens Another One
"Without answers to legitimate questions like the one we just posed — and those are legitimate questions — democracy dies," Carlson concluded. "People begin to understand that the system they've been told is on the level is in fact rigged, and when they believe that, God knows what they do next."
And with that warning of "God knows what they do next," Carlson essentially justified a repeat of the January 6 insurrection — just as when he had initially justified it on January 6: "If people begin to believe that their democracy is fraudulent, if they conclude that voting is a charade, the system is rigged and it is run in secret by a small group of powerful, dishonest people who are acting in their own interests, then God knows what could happen."
Since then, Carlson has painted an alternate reality in which there was no insurrection at all — or conversely pushed a 9/11 Truther-style narrative in which the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters was instead a setup by federal authorities.
But with his parting comment Wednesday night, Carlson showed how this entire sleight of hand really works: He will at once insist that Trump supporters did not attempt the violent overthrow of democracy in America — while also threatening liberals that it may just happen again.
Research contributions from Laura Chavez-Varela