OPINION: Misinformation and Our Local Election

Kathy Lambert's Flyer Depicting Sarah Perry as a "Socialist Puppet"
Photo Credit // Girmay Zahilay Twitter

The 2021 general election was nearly two weeks ago. That means that for many places around the country, results have been in for a while, with Seattle and King County as a whole being no different. The results of the elections have proven surprising to many people, and polarizing to more. Abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy lost to Republican Ann Davison in the race to become Seattle’s next city attorney; Sara Nelson defeated the progressive Nikkita Oliver for position 9 on the Seattle City Council, and Bruce Harrell won the Seattle mayoral race against M. Lorena González. Overall, progressive candidates had a bad run during this election, which raises many worries and speculation about how next year’s midterm elections will go. But in order to understand the possibilities for next year, it is important to understand what happened this year.

As I was scrolling through different social media websites and talking to different friends, I noticed one claim, in particular, coming up over and over again. It was simple but very insidious. Multiple people, including online and offline, have claimed that during the last election cycle, there was a serious issue with misinformation, from both people online and the candidates themselves. Take Thomas-Kennedy’s concession on Instagram and Twitter, where she talks about how misinformation and conspiracy theories ran rampant during her candidacy. Sure, this looks like a candidate tossing around blame for why they lost the election, but at the same time, there seems to be a bigger story surrounding this. And, as always, it’s best to look into claims and do some research before passing judgment on a topic.

Whenever I think of election misinformation, my mind is always drawn back to the 2020 election, with the sheer amount of bad information being thrown around both online and offline making everything feel like a fever dream — but I didn’t have COVID-19. Regardless of what happened, 2020 was the year that clearly showed the dangerous effects of misinformation, such as the claims that former President Trump made about mail-in ballots and the very idea that the election was stolen. But not all misinformation is like that. It doesn’t have to be made by a candidate, nor does it have to be broadcast with the air of legitimacy granted to it by, say, the White House.

For example, it can be spread through the use of mailers. Mailers are usually some kind of flyer or brochure sent out by a political campaign to possible voters. Even Thomas-Kennedy brought up how mailers played a part in her loss during her concession, which is something that I believe can be verified. After all, at their core, mailers are pretty much statements made for or against a candidate by an organization in writing. It is extremely easy to fact-check statements made on mailers or even just figure out why the mailer was sent out, especially when compared to other practices such as misleading social media posts and comments. Now, I was unable to find pictures or copies of the mailers meant to sway voters in any of the elections mentioned earlier, but this isn’t the first time that questionable mailers have made an appearance during 2021.

In order to see an example of why certain kinds of mailers that were being sent out could be misleading enough to sway an election, we only need to look to District 3 in King County. District 3 encompasses Sammamish, Issaquah, and Redmond, along with almost half of King County itself. Last month, its county councilmember Kathy Lambert sent out racist mailers that attacked her opponent, Sarah Perry. In the end, Lambert lost plenty of supporters, endorsements, her leadership positions on the county council, and ultimately her bid for re-election, but the damage had already been done. The mailer that her campaign sent out was not only horrifically racist but also contained blatantly false information about her opponent and that wasn’t the only time her campaign’s mailers made that claim. I live in Sammamish, so my family received a barrage of mailers making questionable claims, which all ended up in our recycling bin. All of the mailers my family received stated that Perry would defund the police if she was elected, even though Perry had stated on her website, “I do not support defunding the police,” and that is what makes me inclined to believe in the idea that misleading mailers played a major part in the results of this election.

It’s impossible for me to pick out exactly where things went wrong for progressives during this year’s election, but it seems certain that misinformation played a major role. After all, it is much easier to make people believe a certain thing when you are just making stuff up. On its own, Lambert’s campaign sending out a barrage of mailers containing misinformation seems like an isolated incident, but when other candidates and voters in the same area claim there were other misleading mailers, a bigger picture starts to show itself. While I am aware of the role that technology, mainly social media, plays in spreading misinformation, the emergence of a culture of misinformation in local elections was not something that I expected. Misinformation should not be the norm during any election, much less local elections, and its increasing prevalence should worry everyone involved.