On Tuesday, multiple polling places being used for Georgia’s Senate runoffs experienced equipment malfunctions, causing a handful of delays and, perhaps more consequentially, giving Trump supporters a foothold for their voter-fraud conspiracy theories. They were not, according to reports on the ground, the kinds of incidents that usually attract much notice: Columbia County, in eastern Georgia, faced problems with programming errors in the keys that start up paper-ballot scanners and in the cards that poll workers use to activate touch-screen voting machines. The issue was resolved by 10 a.m. after the secretary of state’s office sent over new keys and cards. And Paulding and Gwinnett counties, in northern Georgia, also each had a ballot scanner go down, though they were quickly repaired or replaced.
Equipment malfunctions at polling places are a serious issue that can make lines unreasonably long and potentially discourage people who have taken time out of their day from voting. Malfunctions have been all too common in previous elections and aren’t unique to the Georgia runoff. Often, they’re suggestive of neglected voting infrastructure.
What they’re not is evidence of a shadowy conspiracy to steal an election from a president—or, in this case, from two of his Senate allies. Almost immediately, however, disinformation peddlers latched on to disparate reports of malfunctions in Georgia in order to bolster their unfounded claims about a wider undertaking to tamper with voting machines in the 2020 election.
Voting machines have been an obsession of MAGA world thanks in part to President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani falsely asserting that software from the election technology company Dominion allowed Democrats to switch votes from Trump to Biden. Prominent pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell has made even more fantastical claims, alleging that Dominion’s voting machines were created “at the direction” of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to influence election results and that the company also has ties to George Soros and the Clinton Foundation. Dominion has been an object of groundless speculation among followers of QAnon, the conspiracy theory holding that a satanic pedophile ring runs the world’s major institutions, and Trump himself has claimed that there was “tremendous corruption” in the company’s machines.
So when reports of run-of-the-mill malfunctions began trickling out of Georgia, Trump supporters naturally surmised that Dominion was trying to throw the Senate to Democrats as well. One of the first to pick up on this Dominion thread on Tuesday was John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and a member of the Trump campaign’s advisory committee. In an interview on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, Fredericks said that people had called into his show to report malfunctions in Republican counties, which he characterized as “red flags,” but also allowed that it could have been “happenstance.”* Gateway Pundit, a far-right blog that has amplified Dominion misinformation, then published a post featuring the interview along with a dozen social media posts from Georgia voters who experienced issues and blamed it on the company.
The interview and Gateway Pundit post were later picked up by Ron Watkins, one of the most influential figures in the QAnon scene. Watkins is known as the (former, he claims) administrator of 8kun, the imageboard where the QAnon leader known as “Q” communicates with followers, and can access the Q account at any time. Trump has retweeted One America News Network interviews in which Watkins promotes Dominion fraud misinformation. Watkins said of the Georgia malfunctions on Twitter, “The fix is in?” and “Theyre laughing in our faces…”
Trump himself spotlighted the machine malfunctions in a tweet early Tuesday afternoon.
Gabriel Sterling, an election official with Georgia’s secretary of state’s office, quickly shot back at Trump’s tweet, suggesting that the president had received “old intel.”
Correction, Jan. 6, 2021: This post originally misspelled Steve Bannon’s first name.