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DETROIT – Armchair internet sleuths, amplified by Donald Trump Jr. and the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, are trying to prove dead people voted in the 2020 election using a list of 14,000 registered voters in Michigan who are older than 100.
Twitter suspended the account of the user who may have first posted the list. That user, @phalarisaqua, captioned his tweet “ahh oh no I was refilling my vape and I accidentally pasted a list of Michigan voters born 100+ years ago a ha.” The tweet linked to a list on Pastebin, which has since been removed. Pastebin is a site where people can publicly post plain text. It is often used by coders to share scripts.
Another Twitter user, @PhocaeanD, tweeted the list and credited the original poster, but framed the list as 14,000 dead people registered to vote in Wayne County. This second user also posted the Michigan voter index and encouraged people to use the site to verify his claim. The Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, did fact-check the claim and found not all of the people on the list were Wayne County voters. At least some haven’t been recorded as having cast a ballot, and at least one woman is alive.
Poll workers count absentee ballots for the city of Detroit at the TCF Center in downtown Detroit on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
Claims about large numbers of dead voters participating in elections are nothing new. Trump Jr. made a false claim about dead voters casting ballots in Michigan after the August 2020 primary. A lawsuit was filed against Detroit in December 2019 claiming the city needed to purge thousands of dead people from its voter rolls. The suit was later dropped.
This November is no different, said Tracy Wimmer, spokesperson for the Michigan Secretary of State.
“Lists of unknown origin circulating on various social media channels do not constitute credible evidence,” Wimmer said. “Especially when there is often not enough information contained within these lists to conduct a reliable comparison between an allegedly deceased individual and an individual who has returned a ballot.”
This kind of misinformation about dead voters is spreading online with support from people in President Donald Trump’s campaign, despite offering no hard evidence. While misinformation is considered false information, disinformation is when false information is weaponized to cause harm, such as to undermine the results of an election.
‘I’m still alive’
“I just don’t want ‘fact checks’ (to) decide what’s fact for me,” said Jiayu Tian, a 22-year-old University of California, Davis undergraduate.
Tian went through @PhocaeanD’s list and found a woman who returned a ballot for the election. Tian then used the website findagrave.com to check whether the woman was dead, and found a grave matching her name. Tian said he didn’t go through the entire list, but he wanted to look for himself.
“(The fact checks) all cited the Michigan state’s announcement being ‘There’s probably some cases, rare cases, that we did something wrong, but we have those ways to eliminate those issues,’ ” Tian said. “But this is not like rare cases.”
Tian pointed to another list shared on YouTube by the right-wing internet journalist Austen Fletcher. There are more, too. Tian found the lists compelling evidence, he said. There are more than 9,500 people on Fletcher’s list. However, these lists aren’t always what they claim, Wimmer said.
“Many of the supposedly deceased individuals that have been sampled or have been requested for sampling are not in the Michigan Qualified Voter File at all,” Wimmer said.
The New York Times looked into Fletcher’s claims and found some were clerical errors. Others appear to be errors in assumptions Fletcher made. For example, Fletcher’s list included 85-year-old Joseph Nadeau from Ottawa County. Fletcher confirmed Nadeau voted through the Michigan Secretary of State’s website, which Nadeau did. Fletcher then found a grave in Minneapolis for a man by the same name, born in the same month and year and who died in 1993. However, the grave Fletcher found belongs to a man born on Dec. 2, 1934, according to a screenshot he posted on Twitter. The Joseph Nadeau who voted in Michigan was born on Dec. 10, 1934. The Detroit Free Press called him to confirm his vitality.
“I’m still alive,” Nadeau said.
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‘A search for a unicorn’
Matthew Weil is the director of the Elections Project for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington D.C. think tank. States such as Michigan can use databases such as the Electronic Registration Information Center to check against death records from the Social Security Administration as well as voter data in other states.
“The fact that there are internet sleuths looking into this, I don’t understand what data they’re going to use to begin with, but I know states go to a lot of effort to make sure their elections have integrity,” Weil said.
Tian said he doesn’t think there is a big conspiracy to bring down Trump. But he thinks the response from the Michigan Secretary of State is “weak,” he said. He doesn’t think a large-scale recount of votes would change things. He just wants a better explanation about whether these lists are accurate and why people who are dead seem to him to be receiving ballots.
@PhocaeanD’s false claim that the list is 14,000 dead voters made its rounds as others cross-posted it to Facebook and 4Chan. The same framing was used when others posted it to sites such as Gab, which is a social media platform like Twitter and known for its far-right user base. People should check this database for themselves “and we can crowd-source the work the MSM will never admit and never do!!!,” one user wrote.
@PhocaeanD posted his tweet at about 9 p.m. on Nov. 5. By 7 p.m. on Nov. 6, it had been retweeted more than 11,500 times, and quote tweeted by people such as Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert. Adams replied to his tweet and cautioned the list “might include the whole state and might be people who would be over age 100 as opposed to dead for sure.”
Donald Trump Jr. retweeted Adams. @PhocaeanD posted a screenshot of Trump Jr.’s retweet and underlined the name.
The social media monitoring platform CrowdTangle provided some insight into how popular the Pastebin link was on Facebook as of Monday at 7 p.m. The link was shared from public Facebook pages and groups at least 1,100 times. CrowdTangle does not show all shares or shares in private groups or on private pages.
The link was shared on Reddit in the subreddit r/conspiracy, where it had been upvoted 285 times by 8 p.m. Monday. Reddit users did question some things about the data, with the top comment noting the ZIP codes were not all from Wayne County, which was true.
University of Michigan Professor Ken Kollman studies elections and said he hasn’t seen evidence of a large number of people casting ballots in dead people’s names.
“If someone produces such evidence at scale, it would be quite the news, and also very, very surprising,” Kollman said. “This is a search for a unicorn.”
Ashley Nerbovig covers mis- and disinformation for the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. Contact her at [email protected] This project was produced with support from a grant from the American Press Institute.
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