How quotation marks turned a story about a clerical error into one about voter fraud

A clerical mistake by Colorado election officials weeks ahead of the November election has taken on a conspiratorial spin, researchers found via Twitter data.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s office, which oversees the state’s elections, accidentally mailed about 30,000 postcards to non-citizens who were not eligible to vote containing instructions for how to register. At least some of the people who received the postcards are living in the country without authorization.

The materials sent out by the Secretary of State’s office say that only U.S. citizens are eligible to vote and the office says it has safeguards to prevent non-citizens from registering and casting a ballot. Colorado Public Radio first reported the mistake on Oct. 7 and an NPR Twitter account retweeted that story the same day.

Social media engagement with the story remained flat over the weekend, according to Twitter data collected by the University of Washington and Stanford University’s Election Integrity Partnership, which monitors social media discourse about elections.

But tweets casting doubt on whether or not the mailings were really an accident started almost immediately, says Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at 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 election workers and make repeated false claims that Democrats are registering people living in the country illegally to swing 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 residents who are not citizens” without further comment, an accurate statement. Many of the responses to that tweet put quotation marks around the word “accidentally”, or said things like “Riiiiight.”

“As it accelerates in and breaks out into bigger audiences, you do start to see more explicit claims made – that they go beyond the sort of wink, wink, nudge, nudge sort of stuff that seemed to dominate the beginning.” Caufield says.

On Monday, Red State, a conservative website with nearly 300,000 Twitter followers, included the insinuating quotation mark in its story headline about the mistake. In the story, the writer claimed the mistake suggested the incident raised much larger issues with Colorado’s voter registration system.

A few hours later, the story picked up further momentum online when the Associated Press published its story about the error 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 mistake by the conservative Daily Wire on his social platform, Truth Social. That story also used a headline with quotation marks around the word “accidental” even as the body of the story included a quote emphasizing that there are policies “in place to make sure mistakes don’t result in disaster.”

As of Thursday, the story of mistaken voter registration cards continues to gather steam on Twitter, the Election Integrity Partnership’s data shows.

An administrative error involving elections, even if harmless, “is often sort of the core nugget of truth around which the broader, more expansive and often false claim grows”, says Caulfield.

“We have over 3,000 counties in the U.S…in terms of just a numbers game, you’re going to see errors made [in election administration]” Caulfield says. “Luckily most of those errors that develop will be low 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 realized the incident was likely to become grist for actors eager to cast doubt on elections. “We prioritized communicating with Coloradans quickly and transparently about the situation,” she said.

Asking questions about the election process is healthy, says Caulfield, but context is vital.

“When people start to speculate and theorize in this space without, you know, the background information, without the injection of expertise, without all these things that can make those conversations more productive,” he says. “Very often things do go off the rails.”

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