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"Chaos scenarios" drive gatekeepers' election prep

Big tech is holding dry runs to game out different chaos scenarios around Election Day — and election officials are pushing to speed vote-by-mail counts even as they prepare Americans for delayed results, key participants tell Axios.

Why it matters: Digital platforms and state and local elections agencies are two of the most important categories of gatekeepers protecting public confidence in the integrity of the Nov. 3 election. With two months to go, they're stepping up their battle plans.


The big picture: Americans are expected to vote by mail in record numbers this year, meaning it may be days or weeks before it's clear who won the presidency and down-ballot races.

  • Faith in democracy will be at stake in that crucial post-Election Day period.

Details: Facebook, Google, Twitter and Reddit are among the companies Axios has learned are holding regular meetings with one another and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to discuss potential threats to election integrity.

  • A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to Axios that the company has mapped out many possible scenarios, including the spread of misinformation in the crucial post-Election Day period.
  • The company is also still considering new rules around candidates prematurely claiming victory, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the New York Times last month.
  • Twitter has also held similar war games, a spokesperson told Axios. Between March 1 and Aug. 1, the company practiced its response to scenarios including foreign interference, leaks of hacked materials and uncertainty following Election Day.
  • Companies are reluctant to share the results of such exercises. It's unclear just how far they'll go, or be forced to go, to protect election integrity in the face of a sustained attack.

Between the lines: Online platforms have built their election integrity rules around firm bans on posts that discourage people from voting or misinform them about when, where or how to do it.

  • But neither Facebook nor Twitter will say whether those bans would cover a situation where President Trump, Joe Biden or anyone else seeks to sow doubt about votes that have already been cast.
  • Trump has primed his supporters to reject hypothetical Democratic victories built on mail-in ballots, arguing without evidence that they will lead to "the most RIGGED Election in our nations history."
  • The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Biden campaign spokesperson T.J. Ducklo said only that the campaign is "working hard to make sure ... that the votes are counted in a timely, accurate manner."

Elections officials understand the stakes are huge. “We deeply understand that if we get election results wrong, if we put out numbers that are not accurate, that is going to drive the narrative," said Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico's secretary of state and the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

  • California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said his office is recommending to states with less vote-by-mail experience that they be ready to issue a statement publicly checking any candidate that tries to claim victory too early.
  • “The president has already made a lot of claims about this election that are not true and that we’ve had to push back on, and we’ll continue to do that,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.
  • Meagan Wolfe, a top elections official in Wisconsin, said in a roundtable on Monday that there's also an onus on the press to explain to the public that "on election night, those are always unofficial totals."
  • Pennsylvania is one state mulling changes to election law to begin processing mail-in ballots before Election Day.

The other side: Some states are actually moving in the other direction, seeking earlier cutoffs for mail-in ballots.

  • The Georgia Secretary of State's office told Axios it plans to appeal a recent ruling that election officials must count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day. Georgia officials argue that would lead to delays and want to count only ballots received by Election Day.

Dec. 8 is the deadline for states to submit presidential results to Congress.

Officials in both parties have this simple advice for candidates in races that are too close to call: Don’t admit defeat until the lawyers weigh in.

  • "Every candidate will have to make their judgments about when it’s time for them to concede," DNC chair Tom Perez told reporters Tuesday. "I hope they will wait until the ballots are counted and the results are clear."

Be smart: Every group tasked with assuring Americans that their votes get counted — unelected bureaucrats, tech companies and the media — already faces a trust deficit among many populations, particularly Trump supporters.

Hans Nichols contributed to this story.

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