For False Balance, WaPo Cites Phony Report on Vote Fraud

In today’s Washington Post (12/13/11), Jerry Markon reports on the news that the White House “will wade into the increasingly divisive national debate over new voting laws.” But the article’s explanation of the concept of “voter fraud”–the ostensible rationale for these Republican efforts to restrict voting–leaves a lot to be desired.

Markon writes that

liberal and civil rights groups have been raising alarms about the remaining laws, calling them an “assault on democracy” and an attempt to depress minority voter turnout.

Supporters of the tighter laws say they are needed to combat voter fraud.

That’s the usual (and frustrating) on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach you see in a lot of corporate journalism about contentious issues.

What’s a little different is that this piece goes on to try to claim that Republican claims about the problem of voter fraud may have some validity:

When it comes to voting fraud, some conservatives have long argued that it is a serious problem, although others say the number of such cases is relatively low. Studies of the issue have reached different conclusions on the extent of the problem.

That struck me as odd, since most of what I’ve ever read on this subject concludes that there is basically no fraud problem to speak of.

So what’s the Post talking about?

In an email, Markon cited a report by the U.S. Electoral Assistance Commission, which attempted to evaluate the available research on voter fraud. That report was released in December 2006, and seemed to conclude that there was some debate over the extent of the fraud problem. But a few months after that report was released, the New York Times (4/11/07) and USA Today (10/11/06) were both reporting that the original report had come to a very different conclusion. As the Times reported (noted by Brad Blog, 4/11/07):

A federal panel responsible for conducting election research played down the findings of experts who concluded last year that there was little voter fraud around the nation, according to a review of the original report obtained by the New York Times.

Instead, the panel, the Election Assistance Commission, issued a report that said the pervasiveness of fraud was open to debate.

The politicization of this report was covered in the Post as well. One news story (5/14/07) reported:

A draft report last year by the Election Assistance Commission, a bipartisan government panel that conducts election research, said that “there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling-place fraud.”

That conclusion was played down in the panel’s final report, which said only that the seriousness of the problem was debatable.

Indeed one of the authors of the report in question–Tova Andrea Wang–wrote about the misrepresentation of her findings on the Post op-ed page (8/30/07):

Yet, after sitting on the draft for six months, the EAC publicly released a report–citing it as based on work by me and my co-author–that completely stood our own work on its head.

Wang continued:

We said that our preliminary research found widespread agreement among administrators, academics and election experts from all points on the political spectrum that allegations of fraud through voter impersonation at polling places were greatly exaggerated. We noted that this position was supported by existing research and an analysis of several years of news articles. The commission chose instead to state that the issue was a matter of considerable debate.

The issue of “voter fraud” is being used by some states to pass laws that in effect make it more difficult to cast a legitimate vote–essentially using a virtually non-existent “problem” to create a real one. This is easier when journalism gives credibility to “both sides” in a dispute, no matter what reality might say.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.