WASHINGTON - As Kentucky's Republican governor trailed by thousands of votes in his re-election bid and Democrats took the reins of the Virginia Statehouse, social media posts offered an unsubstantiated explanation for the Election Day results: voter fraud.
The messages seized on small-scale voting issues or pushed inaccurate reports to call into question all the election results.
Thousands of dead people voted, some claimed. So many Virginia voters were turned away or given misprinted ballots that the results were suspect, a conservative pundit speculated. One Twitter user suggested that the entire state of Kentucky had purchased new voting machines that led to sweeping errors.
The online responses provide a glimpse into the type of misinformation that could cloud next year's presidential race and might intensify if the election is close, said Charles Stewart III, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied public confidence in elections.
“At best, it would undermine public confidence and at worst lead to violence and a refusal to accept the results of the election,'' Stewart said. ``People are practicing for the 2020 election. I hope they realize they're playing with fire.”
Such unsupported theories alleging massive election fraud have become an online rallying cry in the wake of close contests. President Donald Trump has at times led those cries.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump said in a tweet days after his 2016 victory.
Trump has repeated the idea but never provided any evidence of widespread fraud. He has also amplified false assertions of fraud after votes in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, among other states.
Actual reports of voter fraud nationwide remain extremely rare, and the president's own now-disbanded voting integrity commission failed to uncover any evidence of extensive election misconduct.
Meanwhile, Democrats have routinely suggested Stacey Abrams lost a close gubernatorial election last year in Georgia only because of voter suppression, despite record turnout.
Many of the fraud claims surrounding last week's elections in Kentucky and Virginia were magnified by accounts that describe themselves as supporters of the president. In a statement, Twitter said that the company “saw low-level attempts to spread misinformation primarily driven by organic, authentic conversation.”
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin himself seeded distrust by alleging, without evidence, that ``irregularities'' plagued last week's vote. He has requested a recanvass of the results, which currently show him losing by 5,000 votes to Democrat Andy Beshear, the state attorney general. The review is set for Thursday.
Officials in both states have said the elections experienced only minor disruptions that would not have altered the outcomes.
As of Wednesday, Kentucky's Election Day hotline had received 123 calls, up from 79 during the last gubernatorial race in 2015, when voter turnout was lower. Last year during the midterm elections, the hotline received more than 500 calls.
Voting officials said the complaints were not out of the ordinary.
“The nature of the calls during this cycle were typical of the calls received in previous cycles,” Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Even some Kentucky Republicans challenged Bevin to provide proof.
“You have to show, in order to overturn an election, that you have the goods,'' GOP state Rep. Jason Nemes said Thursday during a radio interview. ``And it doesn't look like we have them.”
In Virginia, where Democrats took control of both chambers of the state Legislature for first time in more than two decades, officials reported that a handful of precincts in Stafford County received the wrong ballots. Some precincts in Prince William County distributed misprinted ballots. The issues lasted, in some cases, a matter of minutes and are being investigated.
“These were very isolated instances,” said Chris Piper, commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections.
Still, falsehoods about voting in Kentucky and Virginia have continued to circulate for days on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, in part because they have been promoted by popular social media accounts with large followings.
One Twitter user shared a screenshot of a Kentucky radio station news article that said the state was poised to get new voting machines, tagging Trump in the tweet.
“First election since Kentucky implemented new voting machines & ODDLY enough the entire state turns blue,” read the tweet, sent from a verified account.
The article, however, was written at least 15 years ago, WFPL reporter Rick Howlett in Louisville confirmed to the AP. No mass overhaul of Kentucky's voting equipment has occurred. In fact, efforts to secure federal money for new machines across the state have been fruitless.
Hundreds of social media users also shared a screenshot of a tweet sent from the misspelled location of “Louiville.” It read, in part, ``just shredded a box of Republican mail in ballots.'' The account has since been suspended by Twitter, and the tweet has been referred to federal law enforcement agencies, according to Kentucky Secretary of State spokeswoman Lillie Ruschell.
Other posts used the election results themselves as evidence for fraud, questioning how the state's Republican governor could lose an election when the GOP successfully swept the other statewide offices.
“Voter fraud in Kentucky? ... There is no way the people who voted for the first 3 didn't vote for the GOP governor,” one Twitter user wrote in a post shared thousands of times.
These fraud allegations are nearly impossible to verify because they do not provide any details, said Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt. He has tracked voter ID fraud cases since 2000, verifying 45 cases over nearly two decades. Levitt said he's noticed an increase in claims of voter crimes that provide few specifics or simply express dissatisfaction with the results.
“When we no longer abide electoral losses but claim that every loss is the product of a system that's unfair, that means we're no longer willing to tolerate changes of power based on people who disagree with us,” Levitt said. “That is toxic.”