TRAVERSE CITY — Bob Baldwin of Lake Leelanau felt pretty good Wednesday morning as he sat down to finish some online banking, so it was quite a surprise for him to hear he’d died in 2008.
Robert Anderson of Evart was looking out his window Tuesday morning, taking in the view of Negaunee Lake’s northern shore, when he learned a viral voter list riddled with falsehoods continues to circulate online, contends he died in September 2006.
Richard Allen of Beulah wasn’t home Tuesday afternoon, so it wasn’t until Tuesday night that a phone message let him know he was already a goner — and had been since July 12, 1993.
Baldwin, who has a quick wit, said he couldn’t remember anything particularly bad happening on Oct. 25, 2008, his supposed date of demise.
“You’d think I would’ve remembered it,” he deadpanned.
Viral list targets absentee voters
The three men are among 10,000 registered voters in Michigan whose names are on a ginned up “Dead MI Absentee Voters” list circulating on social media — and raising the blood pressure of officials — yet easily debunked with a records search and a few phone calls.
Alleged “dead” voters conspiracies have been touted by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign to fuel claims of voter fraud in the battleground states that propelled Joe Biden to victory. Similar claims have been debunked in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
The Michigan list was one of several shared on Twitter by a conservative political activist with 245,000 followers, who sells merchandise and produces a subscription-based podcast described as “comedy + journalism.”
But neither voters, nor county and township clerks, are laughing.
“Where this list originated from, who knows,” said Baldwin, who votes independent and retired from a career in law enforcement in Lansing, before moving to northern Michigan in 2010.
“I think it just goes along with everything they’re trying to say about voter fraud,” he said. “I worked the polls this year. Hard to do if you’re, you know, dead.”
The fraudulent list covers absentee voters from across Michigan, including some who voted in northern Michigan.
A closer, geographical look
The Record-Eagle examined those with last names starting with A or B and registered to vote in zip codes along US-10 to the south and north to Brimley in the Upper Peninsula.
The Michigan Secretary of State’s website was used to see if the voters were registered, then county-specific death indexes were used to search the 36 names found.
All were registered voters, none were deceased.
A finding that comes as no surprise to Grand Traverse County Clerk Bonnie Scheele.
Clerks: No masses of ballots from dead voters in state
“I can assure you, in Grand Traverse County, every month we take our entire death list, we update our qualified voter file and we send it to the township clerks, so they know those people can’t vote because they’re dead,” Scheele said.
That isn’t limited to northern Michigan, she said.
If someone lives elsewhere, but dies here, that death record is sent to the Secretary of State, to the clerk in the county where the person lives and votes, or both, information on the state’s website shows.
Scheele said she was aware of widely circulating voter misinformation attempting to show how supposedly dead voters cast ballots in the presidential election. Some conspiracy theorists have gone so far as to share screenshots of registered voters who are 120 years old.
Officials say there are two explanations for this — one legal, the other psychological.
“You can’t remove a person from the voter roles unless you have verifiable evidence they died,” Scheele said. “A voter may be on the unverified or challenged list and that’s what these people are posting screenshots of.”
“But that doesn’t mean they voted,” she said. “If anyone ever tried to vote under their name they would come up as unverified, would be checked and could not vote.”
Often, it doesn’t even get that far, explained Torch Lake Township Clerk Kathy Windiate.
“I had two different voters who passed away prior to the election, who had turned in their application for the primary and the general,” Windiate said. “The absentee application is good for two elections and they had voted in the primary.”
“Then when I was trying to process their ballots for the general, the system wouldn’t let me,” she said. “I looked up their names and sure enough, they had both passed away. Even if their names could still be found on voter roles, they could not vote, they did not vote and no one voted for them.”
Misinformation can be a powerful lure
There’s a psychological reason people believe the misinformation they read online and then share it with others, said Diane Benscoter, a former cult deprogrammer and founder of Antidote, a nonprofit organization working to expose the dangers of misinformation.
“If someone is vulnerable to this type of manipulation, they are getting a psychological need met by being part of a group of people they feel a kinship with,” Benscoter said. “They feel a sense of camaraderie with whoever they are listening to online.”
People who feel disenfranchised are particularly vulnerable, she said.
“They now have a cause. They feel part of a historical battle between good and evil,” she said.
When misinformation is exciting — as in, thousands masquerading as dead people and voting illegally to sway an election — and the truth is technical and mundane — database management and voter role laws, for example — facts have a hard time competing with lies, Benscoter said.
It’s a reality Leland Township Clerk Lisa Brookfield said she is just now experiencing firsthand.
“I’ve had calls about this and angry people in my office,” Brookfield said. “I thought that the election would calm things down but there are people here who are very upset because they think dead people voted.
“I know how the system works, I’ve undergone extensive and continuous training in Lansing, I consider myself an expert and yet my answers didn’t seem to satisfy them. It is so dispiriting.”
Her paid staff and volunteer poll workers, who’ve devoted hours to ensuring a fair and safe election, feel that same way, she said.
Poll worker prep
One of those is Baldwin, who voted absentee in the presidential election this year and said he volunteered on Election Day at the Leland Township Hall.
Baldwin said his task was to stand by the ballot tabulating machine and double check the number on the voter’s sign-in card with the number on the ballot, and make sure they were the same.
He then removed the perforated tab so the ballot could be fed into the machine and listened as the ballot dropped into the collection box.
“I feel good about working the polls and I feel good about how the vote was handled,” Baldwin said. “It was a five-hour training and then there is this thick book you have to read. It was thorough. We were well-prepared.”
Facts like those shared by elected officials and volunteers regarding voter roll management and poll worker training are likely to carry little authority with those who remain convinced something untoward happened on a large scale, Benscoter said.
“When someone has bought into this kind of messaging for a psychological reason, it is hard to reason with them using rationality,” Benscoter said. “They do not want to find out that their comrades may be wrong or even worse, intentionally lying.”
An identity crisis could result, throwing someone’s entire worldview into disarray, Benscoter said.
Solutions take time, outreach
Support, education and outreach can counter the effects of psychological manipulation, information on Antidote shows, but none work as fast as sharing a funny meme or a fake voter list or a false news report online.
“There’s just so much misinformation out there,” Brookfield said. “We ran a clean, auditable election. This is a system we can be proud of, run by people who are dedicated to the entirety of democracy. When people call the office, that’s what I tell them.”