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Local and European Elections 2024.
VOICES

Elections 2024 The seeds of an Irish 'Stop the Steal' campaign are being sown

Ciarán O’Connor looks at an emerging campaign to undermine election integrity ahead of this week’s vote.

“Vote rigging is a reality. Every voting station will need to be watched for vote tampering. This will take a major patriotic move to watch and protect the votes.”

WE’RE PERHAPS ACCUSTOMED by now to seeing statements like this from across the pond where former President Trump and many of his supporters still maintain the 2020 election was rigged, but in fact, this statement comes from Ireland and has been circulating in reference to our own local and European elections.

In general, instances of election fraud are rare in Ireland though, on occasion, as was the case in Kerry and Sligo in 2019, the Gardai have investigated such allegations. A decision from the Director of Public Prosecutions is still awaited in Kerry while it was decided that no prosecutions be initiated in Sligo.

In the past two weeks, claims of foreign interference and voter fraud have emerged in Ireland, with the finger of blame pointed towards non-citizens, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and news organisations.

These claims mirror the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign that followed the 2020 US presidential election. What we are seeing in Ireland are similar attempts, before any votes were even cast, to cast doubt on the results of the local elections and target the integrity of the whole electoral process.

Ireland

As election day neared, claims of interference in Ireland’s elections surged, broadly fitting into three categories: foreign interference, NGO influence and media bias.

Firstly, some candidates and activists argued that allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections is akin to corruption and foreign interference. They alleged that asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees had been deliberately registered and instructed to vote for specific candidates or parties as part of a gerrymandering or “ballot harvesting” operation which constitutes a plot to subvert or replace Irish voters.

Similar claims have sprouted up in the US where, among others, Elon Musk has boosted claims that the number of voters registering without photo ID is “skyrocketing” and that illegal immigrants are being brought to the US to adversely impact elections.

In Ireland, a 1999 referendum granted non-citizens the right to vote in local elections. That right to vote came into play in 2004. 20 years later, participation remains low. Research by William Durkan, University College Cork, and Adrian Kavanagh, Maynooth University, from the 2019 local elections showed that only 1 in 10 registered non-EU residents turned up to vote in Dublin. Fears of migrant manipulation or coercion of Irish democracy are overstated.

Secondly, accusations have been levelled against NGOs that encourage migrant participation as candidates. Critics argue these efforts are malevolent attempts to influence the democratic process and undermine election authenticity. They claim that promoting ethnic minorities and providing campaign training will disrupt democracy.

This perspective vilifies civic organisations promoting diversity and representation, stoking xenophobic sentiments and polarising the electorate.

Lastly, there are claims that biased media organisations deliberately exclude fringe candidates. Critics see this editorial decision as something more sinister, alleging that outlets are complicit in shaping election outcomes to favour established parties.

Four small parties co-signed a letter to RTÉ describing their exclusion from debates as media interference. While often exaggerated, these claims underscore the need for media plurality and the importance of providing a platform for diverse political perspectives.

These tactics and dynamics echo the playbook used in the US in 2020/21, raising questions about their implications for Irish democracy.

‘Stop the Steal’

The ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign launched after the 2020 US presidential election was driven by baseless claims of widespread voter fraud used to delegitimise Joe Biden’s victory. These narratives spread rapidly on social media through grassroots activists, far-right groups, QAnon conspiracy theorists, MAGA supporters and Trump himself, as documented in our analysis at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an organisation that researches online extremism, hate and disinformation.

Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Parler saw significant increases in disinformation activity as social media algorithms amplify sensational content. Posts from Trump and other proponents of ‘The Big Lie‘ reached millions, fostering scepticism about the integrity of the election and convincing many to reject the result of the election.

The impact was profound, sowing doubt among many Americans about the electoral process and motivating extreme actions. This disinformation campaign culminated in the violent storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021, and its long-term effects are still felt today.

A January 2024 Washington Post poll found that two thirds of Republican voters and nearly 3 in 10 Americans continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. These claims resurfaced in the 2018 midterm elections too.

With November approaching, Trump has once more ramped up claims that the election will be rigged. Large scale distrust and suspicion of the electoral process is now commonplace across the US. Despite no evidence of any systematic fraud, the rot has set in. Other countries have faced this challenge too.

Playbook

Elections are petri dishes for false claims, deceptive tactics and narratives designed to sway public opinion. Since 2020, online communities in the UK, France, Germany and Italy have sought to emulate the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign and seed false allegations about rigged elections to impede democracy in their respective countries.

Efforts to borrow from the ‘Stop the Steal’ playbook and undermine election integrity in Ireland are well underway. The ultimate goal of these tactics is to introduce doubt and sow discord so that if the election results do not align with the desires of certain groups, they may claim the vote was rigged. This approach serves to threaten the electoral process, create a cycle of distrust and undermine the mandate of those who were victorious.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, the ultimate loser in this scenario is democracy itself. To safeguard against this, our institutions, political leaders and wider society must be prepared to counter these narratives with transparency, truth and a commitment to democratic principles. 

Ciarán O’Connor is Senior Analyst the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a counter-extremism think-tank working to push back against the rising tide of extremism, polarisation and hate on a global scale.  

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Author
Ciarán O’Connor