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Fact check: EU elections and fake news about ballot fraud

June 7, 2024

As European parliamentary elections kick off, voters have been exposed to plenty of disinformation regarding voting rules. DW looked at four popular claims aimed at disrupting the democratic process.

A picture of a cellphone screen purporting to show an AfD ad encouraging voters to sign their ballots as a way to safeguard against vote fraud
'Prevent election fraud, sign the ballot' reads a purported AfD ad, in reality, a signature renders a ballot invalid Image: X

Ballots rendered invalid if voters' check marks or Xs are too large, or if there are holes punched in them, parties and candidates reportedly excluded from the tally — many voters are unsettled by the current glut of fake information surrounding the European parliamentary elections taking place between June 6 and 9. 

Tommaso Canetta, fact-checking coordinator at the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), told DW that the spread of false claims serves to undermine trust in state institutions and reduce voter turnout.

"The minorities — the extremist groups and very, very polarized minorities — are the ones more likely to vote. If the general population is less inclined to participate, then the percentages of the minorities are higher," he said, explaining that those small groups would have a "greater impact" if there was "lower overall participation."

More than 360 million citizens in 27 European countries are eligible to vote in this year's European Parliament elections. For its fact check, DW examined four false claims regarding the election process.

Maintaining ballot secrecy

Claim: "A ballot is invalid without a signature."

DW fact check: False.

Lately, an image that looks like it is part of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party's election campaign has been circulating online featuring the words (in German), "Prevent electoral fraud, sign the ballot."

The image is meant to confuse, as a ballot is in fact rendered invalid when signed.

Though the German Federal Elections Act does not explicitly mention ballot signatures, it clearly states that any ballot "containing an addendum or reservation" by a voter is invalid.

The office of the Federal Returning Officer, who is responsible for supervising the "proper organization and conduct of an election" in Germany, confirmed: "A ballot may not be signed. The signing of a ballot by the voter jeopardizes secrecy and results in the ballot being rendered invalid."

Voting 'tips' from anti-AfD sources?

The supposed "warning" could be a strategy to mislead potential AfD voters and there are several indicators pointing to this: One is that the URL on the poster — "alternativefuer.de" — leads nowhere. Moreover, there are also no references to the "warning" on the AfD's official digital platforms. And the users who have shared the post seem to have a critical and/or negative attitude towards the far-right German party.

Ballot assistance for visually impaired voters

Claim: "Ballot papers with punched holes or missing corners are invalid."

DW fact check: False.

A screenshot of a paper ballot from Germany
This social media user claims ballots cannot be hole-punched, that is wrongImage: https://www.evernote.com/

"So folks, I wisely applied for a mail-in ballot and received the documents yesterday," posted one German-language user on TikTok. "As you can see, hole-punched, invalid from the start," she added. "There is an international law, according to which official documents must not be damaged. This includes holes or missing corners. ID cards are invalidated when their corners are cut off."

The post includes pictures of various ballots, but none have anything to do with the current European elections. They were used for elections that took place in the German state of Baden-Württemberg on March 14, 2021.

The assertion that a punched hole or missing corner invalidates a ballot is false. According to the Federal Returning Officer, "a ballot template is an aid with which blind and severely visually impaired voters can read the essential content of the ballot with their fingers and vote independently and secretly at a polling station or by post."

Federal Electoral Regulations provide the basis for creating ballots. These stipulate, "the upper right corner of the ballot shall be punched or cut off to enable the use of ballot templates. Upon completion, example ballots shall be made immediately available to those associations for the blind that have expressed their willingness to produce ballot templates."

A screen image showing supposedly correct and incorrect X markings on a ballot
In reality, a cross — which also doesn't have to be a cross — does not have to be entirely inside the circle or box on a ballotImage: Tiktok

A fight over correctly marked ballots

Claim: "If marks touch or go outside the edges of the circle a ballot is declared invalid."

DW fact check: Misleading.

Numerous social media posts purport to explain how voters can correctly mark their ballots. These suggest that if an X goes outside the edges of a voting box or circle the vote will be considered invalid. There are several posts to this effect on TikTok, for instance.

But the assertion is false. Section 16 of the European Elections Act stipulates that the voter "cast his or her vote in such a way that he or she clearly indicates which nomination his or her vote is intended for by entering a cross on the ballot or in some other way." There is no indication that there can be no marks touching the circle or box. Furthermore, according to the Federal Returning Officer, a cross in the designated circle is "not necessarily compulsory."

"Usually other symbols (such as a dot, check mark, number sign, etc.,) are also regarded as acceptable. Marking beyond the edge of the circle does not necessarily render a vote invalid either, as long as the ballot clearly shows which candidate was selected by the voter," states the official website.

Personal expressions forbidden

The website notes that only those ballots, "which do not indicate a voter's intention with certainty, or contain an addendum or reservation by the voter, are invalid."

"Impermissible addenda or reservations include critical remarks of a general nature next to the marking, reasons for casting the vote, opinions and feelings about the election, and any reference to the voter."

Another claim, stating that election officials have been instructed to declare votes for the AfD invalid if circles are marked with a cross, has also been repeatedly disproven by the independent German non-profit newsroom Correctiv — both before the 2019 European Parliament elections as well as Germany's 2017 federal elections.

Germany’s far-right AfD expelled from EU parliamentary group

AfD kicked out of the European Parliament?

Claim: "The AfD has been excluded from European elections."

DW fact check: False.

On May 24, a post circulating on Facebook claimed the far-right AfD had been excluded from competing in the European elections. The cynical tirade railed against a supposed elite "trying to scare would-be Germans" and complaining about a "joke government" and "ridiculously embarrassing society."

A headline by German broadcaster Welt-TV also suggested the AfD would be barred from European elections on June 9.

In truth, the AfD was recently thrown out of the European Parliament's Identity and Democracy (ID) group, which said it wanted to distance itself from the most radical elements of the German party — but it has not been banned from taking part in the elections.

The ID is an alliance of far-right, populist and nationalist parties that includes French politician Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National and the Italian Lega.

In a May 23 press release, the AfD said it regretted being excluded from the ID group and had taken note of the decision. "Nevertheless, we are optimistic about election night and the days that will follow."

Not only is it untrue that the AfD has been excluded from the European elections, neither has its lead candidate Maximilian Krah.

The AfD did, however, ban Krah — who came under fire for suspicious links to Russia and China as well as his statements in defense of German SS officers during the Nazi regime — from making any public appearances during the campaign. He nevertheless remains in the top slot on the party's candidate list as the legal deadline for replacing candidates expired on March 18.

This article was originally published in German.

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