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As States Count Votes, Some Of Texas’ Most Prominent Republican Politicians Are Spreading Misinformation About The Election

President Donald Trump speaks about the 2020 election results at the White House.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
President Donald Trump speaks about the 2020 election results at the White House.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published before Saturday's news that Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election. When the original piece is updated, this republished version will be as well.

As votes continue to be counted in the presidential race, President Donald Trump used both Twitter and the White House to sow doubts about the integrity of the electoral process.

Some of Texas’ most prominent Republican politicians, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, have joined the president in amplifying misinformation about the election across their platforms.

Much of the misinformation has been centered on the vote-counting process in states like Pennsylvania, a battleground territory in the race for the presidency.

The count in Pennsylvania was expected to be slow because of the large number of mail-in ballots and because state law prevented poll workers from beginning to process them until Election Day.

Cruz appeared on Fox News’ “Hannity” on Thursday night and charged that Philadelphia officials are “not allowing the election observers in, despite clear state law that requires election observers being there.” U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, said on a local radio show Friday morning that it was disturbing “they won’t let poll watchers in, after a judge’s order, is very telling.”

And U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, who appeared in Philadelphia on Friday, raised the possibility, without presenting any evidence, of “manufactured” votes and said “the election is in the process of being stolen.”

The claims from Cruz and Cloud about election watchers are not true. In a court hearing Thursday, a lawyer for Trump acknowledged that the team’s observers were being allowed in the room, according to WHYY in Philadelphia. When the judge asked if Trump observers were allowed in the room, a Trump attorney answered, “There's a non-zero number of people in the room.”

The judge in the case, a Republican appointee, dismissed a lawsuit seeking an end to the count after urging both sides to come to an agreement on how many observers from each party could be in the room where the ballots were being counted.

The counting has been done in the presence of election watchers representing both parties. But Trump has continued to claim, with no evidence, that he is being cheated. Texas politicians and conservative figures have spread falsehoods that have further sowed confusion about those claims.

The vote counting in Philadelphia is taking place at its sprawling convention center. Philadelphia magazine reported that early in the count, observers had to watch the proceedings from distances ranging from approximately 15-105 feet away — making the ability to see the count difficult, according to a Republican observer’s testimony. Most notably, one observer was photographed watching the counting with the aid of binoculars. City officials argued that counters needed space to maintain social distancing, security and privacy protections while handling ballots.

After Republican challenges to this, a Pennsylvania state judge ruled Thursday morning that observers must be within 6 feet from the counting and abide by measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Cruz argued Friday morning on Twitter that because of the Thursday state court ruling mandating the 6-foot rule, “Someone 20 ft away—forced to use binoculars—is not an ‘observer’... .”

“No one is saying that poll watchers were not in the room in Philadelphia — they are saying they were too far away to actually see anything,” a Cloud spokesperson wrote to the Tribune. “That is the conflict going on. You can’t see anything from 30 feet away.”

Cloud also alleged, without any evidence, that officials “stopped counting in some of these states so that they could, in the morning, come back and count the Trump-heavy areas first, so that they’ll know how many more ballots are needed” in absentee votes to overcome that disparity.

When reached for elaboration on these allegations, the Cloud spokesperson noted that Cloud added, “Obviously, I’m here in Texas, I’m not sitting in Philadelphia or Detroit or Atlanta or any of these cities. I’m just saying when I look from here, I don’t see a transparent process.”

“He is not saying that he has all the answers or knows even what happens but that the process has not been transparent and that they should have been provided greater access,” the spokesperson said. “It has not been a transparent process in many of these states. That is his point.”

A Cruz spokesperson also weighed in when asked for the senator’s source for the allegations.

“Republican poll watchers were denied meaningful access to the ballot processing and counting process in Philadelphia, posing a direct threat to the integrity of our elections,” the aide emailed.

“That’s why a Pennsylvania court ordered that observers must be allowed within six feet of all aspects of the ballot counting process,” the spokesperson added. “As Sen. Cruz has said, the American people have the right to expect votes will be counted fairly, with transparency, and not in secret.”

Cruz and other state leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have also been critical of the pace of the counts in key states. As of Friday, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Alaska still had enough votes to count that the results there were uncertain. Texas was still counting votes, too; there just wasn’t a small enough margin for them to matter in the presidential race.

“How come it’s just the big Democratic cities that can’t seem to figure out how to count a damn vote?” Cruz said on Fox News.

In fact, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar unsuccessfully lobbied her state’s Republican legislature to allow mail-in vote counting to begin before polls closed on Election Day. Without that approval, the process in Pennsylvania has played out largely as expected. Trump won the majority of votes cast and counted on Election Day — and for months he has discouraged his voters from casting ballots by mail. But the gap narrowed in the days after the vote as mail-in ballots, which have been more likely to go for former Vice President Joe Biden, are counted.

Abbott, who did not respond to a request for comment, raised a similar complaint as Cruz on Twitter on Thursday night.

“Texas swiftly processed more than 11 million votes & quickly announced winners across 2 time zones,” he wrote. “To ensure transparency we allow poll watchers from each party to participate in the voting & tally processes.

“What is happening in some states undermines trust in elections,” he added.

Texas has not declared winners in its races, though media outlets have projected winners in all but one federal race because the margins are large enough to know who will win.

The state has had its own minor glitches in reporting vote counts, as is usual when it works with 254 counties to administer hundreds of races at a time. For instance, the state’s results page showed the wrong candidate leading in a state House race in Fort Bend County the day after Election Day. The secretary of state’s office announced the fix on Twitter, saying the county had entered the results incorrectly.

Nor has the state finished counting all its ballots. Tarrant County — the state’s third-most-populous county — flipped from red to blue two days after Election Day.

Texas also allows overseas ballots to be counted if they’re received five days after Election Day, and military ballots will still be accepted if they are received six days after Election Day. Still, the state was able to report most of its results relatively quickly because, unlike many states, it did not expand absentee balloting during the coronavirus pandemic. Many other states faced unprecedented volumes of mail-in ballots this cycle because millions of voters were reluctant to cast their ballots in person.

Michigan vote-counters were only able to begin their work the day before the election because of a bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by the state’s Democratic governor.

A Las Vegas official told a TV affiliate that the delay in the vote count there is going into extended overtime because all “active” voters receive ballots in the mail, and the counting process takes a while in order to ensure no one votes twice.

Detroit officials at one point covered up windows during vote counting because a crush of protesters were filming the process, according to CNN. A city official told the news outlet that the aim was to preserve the secrecy of ballots and to prevent them from being filmed. The official further said that observers and reporters were on the scene watching the process as well.

Samuel Woolley, program director for propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, said disinformation — or the deliberate spread of false information — often begins with a shred of truth. He said comments, such as those from Trump, are “very damaging for people’s trust and security and the integrity of the electoral system.”

“The process is proceeding as it’s meant to proceed,” Woolley said. “But people who work to spread disinformation and propaganda are attempting to undermine the process to empower themselves.”

A few Republican officials in Texas have gently pushed back against Trump’s claims. As Trump was calling for the counting of votes to be halted earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, told The Texas Tribune in a statement that “all votes legally cast should count.” But, he added without providing details, “there are legitimate concerns regarding the potential for fraud that must be addressed in order for the country to move forward.”

Outgoing U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, delivered a more forceful renunciation of the president’s claims.

“A sitting president undermining our political process & questioning the legality of the voices of countless Americans without evidence is not only dangerous & wrong, it undermines the very foundation this nation was built upon,” he tweeted Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, urged increased transparency and thorough investigations of any allegations of malfeasance. “If Trump loses, he loses. It was never an impossible outcome and we must accept the final results when it is over,” he wrote Friday on Twitter.

“It should not be partisan to suggest calmly that investigations occur and the court process plays out,” he added. “Americans need to be sure of the winner and loser. The winners should especially want that.”

Crenshaw, Cloud, Arrington and five other Texas colleagues wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr asking whether he’d commit to “using all the resources at your disposal to ensure that only legal votes are being counted” and that the count is being done transparently.

And some Republicans doubled down on false accusations.

On Thursday, Cruz shared an unverified video of a person claiming improprieties in the Philadelphia vote count. Twitter has since blocked the video for violating the platform’s rules.

And U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, tweeted that “this is the most corrupt election in our lifetime,” despite winning his own reelection battle Tuesday by 14 percentage points.

“Where is the DOJ and AG?” Twitter later suspended the congressman’s campaign account for violating its rules.

Other less high-profile Texas sources have also contributed to the misinformation and seen their messages amplified broadly.

In a now-deleted tweet, Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak shared a screenshot Wednesday of Michigan tallies from Decision Desk HQ that suggested that Biden received 100% of the votes in a batch of 138,339 ballots added to the state’s count. The influx was due to a data error — a county worker made a typo when entering numbers, and the issue was quickly corrected.

Mackowiak later deleted the tweet, saying it was an honest mistake. But Trump still boosted the claim. “WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT?” the president tweeted to his 88 million followers.

Meanwhile, Kellye SoRelle, a Texas attorney, a former state House candidate and a Lawyers for Trump member, recorded a video that went viral purporting to show extra ballots being brought into a Detroit vote-counting facility long after the ballots had been expected to arrive.

The video actually showed a photographer for local TV station WXYZ unloading camera equipment and a cooler, according to one of the station’s reporters, Ross Jones.

“He was bringing down equipment for our 12-hour shift,” Jones tweeted.

Texas Scorecard, a website created by the hardline conservative political group Empower Texans, published an article with the video that spread through right-wing circles, briefly crashing the site.

Alex Samuels contributed reporting.

Abby Livingston joined the Tribune in 2014 as the publication's first Washington Bureau Chief. Previously, she covered political campaigns, House leadership and Congress for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. A seventh-generation Texan, Abby graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Fort Worth and has appeared in an episode of "The Bold and The Beautiful." Abby pitched and produced political segments for CNN and worked as an editor for The Hotline, National Journal’s campaign tipsheet. Abby began her journalism career as a desk assistant at NBC News in Washington, working her way up to the political unit, where she researched stories for Nightly News, the Today Show and Meet the Press. In keeping with the Trib’s great history of hiring softball stars, Abby is a three-time MVP (the most in game history —Ed.) for The Bad News Babes, the women’s press softball team that takes on female members of Congress in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball breast cancer charity game.
Shawn Mulcahy, The Texas Tribune