The 2020 presidential election has sparked election conspiracies across the country, shaping our public perceptions, discourse, and seeping into state and local election policy debates – that is, unless we, the voters, choose to put it to a stop.
Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll’s April 24 opinion piece in The Colorado Sun criticizes the Colorado GOP for its endorsements of unverifiable election misinformation, calling for voters represented by the GOP to demand their candidate representatives to stand on the side of truth.
This is a noble goal, but reality is much more complex. Understanding the psychological motivations individuals have in forming political beliefs is key for effectively preventing political leaders from promoting misinformation.
Claims that the 2020 election were stolen are unfounded and detrimental to the wellbeing of Colorado and U.S. elections, election administration, and the health of representative democracy generally. The misinformation about elections needs to be understood within the framework of how and why individuals accept information from the major parties, and why trust is placed in particular leaders.
Misinformation exists because there is a public willing to receive, believe, and act on it. Why is that?
A social psychology answer boils it down to our basic needs as human beings –– needs related to survival, relationships, and self-esteem. These needs shape our beliefs, developed through experiences, social learning, and information processing conditioned by families, peers, communities, and the media we consume. We are motivated by one another.
Social science research explains how the groups around us create group identification within us, providing a sense of belonging through shared, meaningful social identities. In the U.S., our two major political parties create mega-identities, consolidating a variety of group identifications into the attitudes, beliefs, and the politics we support.
Voters use mental short cuts in their beliefs and behaviors, taking cues from the leaders associated with national partisan identities. Humans are motivated to protect their identities and rationalize information to align with prior attitudes and beliefs.
The misinformation that voters internalize is shaped by the people and sources we get political information from, driven by group leaders. Due to technology and market changes in news, state elections are often characterized by national party issues. The most politically engaged have strong identities tied to the national parties, providing them with social meaning.
A common notion is that partisan media echo chambers drive false beliefs, but their influence is overblown. In a high-choice, competitive and fragmented media landscape, partisan bubbles are real for a fraction of the most politically active. It just so happens that these voters are receptive to cues partisan leaders are willing to use. They’re the ones who reliably participate in primary elections, creating outsized influence in determining general election candidates.
Misinformation is not always politically one-sided. The losing party “crying wolf” has a long history in U.S. elections, and will continue to ramp up into Colorado primaries and the general election. Carroll’s ability to persuade a Republican with a moderately strong party identification, who distrusts the Democratic Party, is unlikely. Simply put, she may not be perceived as credible to someone who leans conservative or who doesn’t know what to believe amidst competitive information.
Misinformation and conspiracies have consequences in forms of fueling distrust in government institutions, media, between partisans, and professional public administrators. If we really want to promote elections that reward representatives for being perceived as truthful, then Colorado voters should reward leaders who promote accurate messages about election administration.
Election misinformation beliefs by partisans feeds back into the candidates providing inaccurate cues. The Colorado U.S. Senate GOP primary comes down to Ron Hanks and Joe O’Dea. Hanks relies on election-fraud cues, whereas O’Dea has rejected the claims, trying to focus on real issues that actually impact Colorado.
We need voters to support leaders who are willing to build bridges across bipartisan social identities. This could be Colorado Democratic Party-endorsed Sen. Michael Bennet, who has a relatively moderate record, but it could also be a candidate, like Joe O’Dea, going against powerful national party pressures. It’s not only necessary to provide accurate information to the public about how robust elections in Colorado are; it ensures there are leaders promoting accurate information for persuadable voters.
While I understand Carroll’s institutional position, it would be irresponsible to assume she can represent the public as a whole. In a representative democracy it’s simply not possible, and should not be expected, for one person to represent any group of people perfectly. Carroll’s attempt to move Republican voters to support Democratic candidates is wishful strategy.
Registered Republican and Unaffiliated voters can vote in the June 28 semi-open GOP primary before considering any movement of party support. To you Colorado residents out there who are sick of tumultuous political rhetoric distracting rather than touching on real issues affecting Coloradoans on a day-to-day basis: Now is an opportunity to stop rewarding candidates representing the loudest partisan fringes.
Colorado voters need to vote in the semi-open primaries if they want movement toward representation by moderate candidates not passionately endorsing election misinformation.
Corey McAuliffe, of Fort Collins, is a graduating master’s student in political science at Colorado State University.
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