Fact check: Human error led to vote adjustment in California recall election

·4 min read

The claim: Hundreds of thousands of votes from the California recall election disappeared live on CNN

In a historic statewide recall election, Californians voted this week to keep Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in office. But online, some are repackaging old election conspiracy theories to cast doubt on the outcome.

A video posted Sept. 15 on Instagram shows a CNN broadcast of the election results. In the foreground, Jordan Sarmo, the host of a conservative podcast called Speak Truth Without Fear, points to the vote count.

At the beginning of the clip, the broadcast shows about 2.2 million votes in favor of recalling Newsom. Then, the number updates to about 1.8 million.

"Boom. You're going to tell me there's not election fraud in this country," Sarmo says in the video. "We do not elect our politicians – we select them."

Sarmo told USA TODAY in an email that he corrected his video after an Associated Press fact check rated it missing context. But similar versions of the claim have accumulated tens of thousands of interactions on Facebook and Instagram, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.

The video doesn't show election fraud in California. It shows the correction of a human error made by a firm that provides election data to CNN and other news outlets.

More: Voter fraud claims create 'circus-like atmosphere,' stir California recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom

"Quality control catches most human error, but this one slipped by for two minutes," Rob Farbman, executive vice president of Edison Research, told USA TODAY in an email.

Vote adjustment due to reporting correction

Edison Research is a company that provides election data, including vote counts, to the National Election Pool, a consortium of American news outlets that includes CNN. The vote change seen in Sarmo's video was due to the firm correcting an error made by one of its staffers.

"A vote count called in from a reporter stationed at the Santa Clara County office at 11:19 (p.m.) ET accidentally had the 'total vote' – Yes + No combined – for the recall race in the 'Yes' column, giving 'Yes' an extra 350,000 votes," Farbman said.

The error was corrected within two minutes, he told USA TODAY. The change in votes seen on CNN and other television networks was the result of that correction.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses reporters on Tuesday night in Sacramento after beating back a recall attempt that aimed to remove him from office.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses reporters on Tuesday night in Sacramento after beating back a recall attempt that aimed to remove him from office.

This isn't the first time a vote count reporting error from Edison Research has prompted allegations of voter fraud.

In January, USA TODAY rated missing context a claim that TV news broadcasts showed the deletion of thousands of votes for Republican David Perdue during a Senate runoff election in Georgia. That drop was also due to Edison Research correcting errors in its reporting.

"Occasional corrections have been happening in network vote reporting for 50 years," Farbman said, "but recording election night (broadcasts) and searching for an error so you can call it 'fraud' is the new world we live in."

In any case, 400,000 votes would not have affected the outcome of the California recall.

About 5.8 million people voted to keep Newsom in office, while 3.3 million voted to recall him, according to the state's unofficial election results. Republican front-runner Larry Elder conceded the race and acknowledged Newsom's win Tuesday night.

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"There is no evidence of widespread voter 'fraud' impacting the election results," Jenna Dresner, a spokesperson for the California secretary of state's office, said in an email.

USA TODAY reached out to CNN for comment, but it did not provide one on the record.

Our rating: Missing context

Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that hundreds of thousands of votes from the California recall election disappeared live on CNN. The change was due to Edison Research correcting an error made by a staffer reporting election results in Santa Clara County. California elections officials say there's no evidence of widespread voter fraud affecting the recall results.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Changing vote total in CA recall coverage wasn't fraud

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