Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon once proclaimed that his approach to fighting Democrats was to aggressively game media narratives — specifically to “flood the zone with s---.” The idea, typified by Trump’s political campaigns and extremist right-wing media outlets like Breitbart, was to tar one’s opponents using a firehose of misinformation and disinformation. The effect was to disorient the public and generate suspicion among not just Republicans but also independents and even some Democrats.
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Today grassroots right-wing activists focused on “election integrity” are channeling Bannon’s “flood the zone” ethos themselves. Normal people may not be able to leak influential half-truths and disinformation to reporters the way influential politicos like Bannon can, but they can generate controversy and a false aura of scandal through organized stunts.
A lot of it will fade into obscurity. But some of it could stick.
An unsettling example can be found in a recent New York Times report that identified a “loosely coordinated campaign” ahead of the midterm elections to toss out tens of thousands of ballots and voter registrations in a number of states:
Groups in Georgia have challenged at least 65,000 voter registrations across eight counties, claiming to have evidence that voters’ addresses were incorrect. In Michigan, an activist group tried to challenge 22,000 ballots from voters who had requested absentee ballots for the state’s August primary. And in Texas, residents sent in 116 affidavits challenging the eligibility of more than 6,000 voters in Harris County, which is home to Houston and is the state’s largest county.
As the Times investigation notes, “the vast majority” of the complaints have been tossed out, often because they’re based on bad information or a misunderstanding of how voter registrations work. That’s not surprising, because, as voting experts have pointed out again and again, fraud is exceptionally rare and doesn’t pose a meaningful threat to our election system. “Voting rights groups say the greater concern is inadvertently purging an eligible voter from the rolls,” The Times notes.
Lest anyone think this is an apolitical exercise, the investigation reveals that some of the groups specifically target counties that skew Democratic and in private strategy sessions discuss how they see their efforts as a way to aid Republicans.
So if these efforts are largely failing because there isn’t a fraud problem, then what’s the point? Flooding the zone.
This works on a few different levels. First of all, bombarding election officials with complaints takes up state resources and creates the possibility of accidentally culling legitimate ballots or voter registration records.
Second, while today most of these activist efforts are rejected, it’s not hard to imagine that over a long enough timeline, they could work in concert with election-denying allies who infiltrate the electoral process. For example, if some of the many secretary of state candidates who are election deniers take office, they might be eager to use bad faith and nonsensical complaints from these “flood the zone” watchdogs as a pretext to enact stricter voting rules or permit endless audits. That would be a real win for the movement.
Third, this burgeoning network of groups — often with serious and neutral-sounding names like Election Integrity Fund and Force — are creating an impression of mistrust and controversy around routine election processes that’s going to chip away at already-eroding voter trust in the election process. Combined with efforts like bogus “election police” units, needless election audits, preposterous lawsuits to overturn election results and right-wing sheriffs groups, there is, indeed, a lot of flooding of the zone going on.
A lot of it will fade into obscurity. But some of it could stick and make every election going forward more contentious. It’s a reminder of how Bannon teamed up with Trump to reshape our politics for far longer than they remained in power — and could continue doing so if we fail to tackle the problem head-on.