Journalists, stop validating Republican spin on voter ID

Later today, Iowa Senate Republicans will give final approval to a bill that could prevent thousands of eligible voters from casting ballots. A broad coalition of groups oppose House File 516, because common sense and research on similar laws in other states overwhelmingly point to one conclusion: voter ID and signature verification requirements will create barriers to the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right, disproportionately affecting students, the poor, the elderly, and people of color.

Republicans don’t acknowledge any of the expert testimony. They pay no attention to the conservative judge who regrets his ruling on Indiana’s voter ID law, having concluded that such laws are “a means of voter suppression.” They keep insisting their so-called “election integrity” bill won’t block a single citizen from voting.

They offer up false equivalencies, saying in their newsletters and on the Senate floor that Iowa Democrats also passed a voter ID law when they controlled both legislative chambers.

These tactics can be effective because most news reports on contentious issues give equal weight to both sides, even if one side is not credible. The “he said/she said” frame with no effort to evaluate competing claims is one of my major journalism pet peeves.

But I realized last Friday that when a politician stretches the truth, a reporter’s incompetent fact-check is worse than no fact-checking at all.

Erin Jordan of the Cedar Rapids Gazette examined two of State Representative Bobby Kaufmann’s assertions about voter ID.

“When Democrats controlled the governorship and Legislature (2007-2010), they enacted a photo identification law that still is on the books. Democrats enacted same-day registration in Iowa and required an ID be shown.”

“The fact of the matter is that 41 felons voted in Iowa in 2016 that should not have.”

Bleeding Heartland guest author Lauren Whitehead published the full text of that Kaufmann newsletter here, along with her “Fixed It For Ya” version. Longer extracts from the original:

I want to make one point very clear. Showing your ID in the voting process is NOT new to Iowa. When Democrats controlled the Governorship and Legislature (2007-2010), they enacted a Photo Identification law that is still on the books. Democrats enacted same-day registration in Iowa and REQUIRED an ID be shown. That bill was supported by the ALCU [sic] and the League of Women Voters. In the 10 years since Photo ID was enacted by Democrats, not one complaint has been levied that its [sic] caused suppression of a single person’s ability to register to vote. I want to repeat that because it is very important. Democrats enacted Photo ID law for same-day registrants and in the last 10 years there has been ZERO evidence of voter suppression. […]

I have had people tell me there are no reports of fraud. Of course there isn’t because we have not been checking in a uniform way and in some cases at all. The fact of the matter is that 41 felons voted in Iowa in 2016 that [sic] should not have.

Fellow blogger John Deeth, a nineteen-year veteran of the Johnson County Elections Office, needed only five sentences to expose the flaws in Kaufmann’s first claim.

It is true that the election day registration law passed in 2007 does include an ID requirement, though people who have an attestor who lives in the same precinct (for example, couples or roommates) do NOT need an ID. That was done as a way to EXPAND voting rights. Before 2008, if you weren’t registered in the county 10 days before an election, you were just out of luck and could not vote.

The voter ID integrity (sic) bill is designed instead to LIMIT voting by putting up artificial barriers in an effort to solve a “problem,” in person voter impersonation, that simply does not exist. Comparing new voting restrictions to a voter expansion effort that over 5200 voters in Johnson County used last fall is worse than cynical.

Republican State Senator Roby Smith threw out the “Democrats approved photo ID in 2007” line during his closing argument as floor manager of the voter ID bill on March 23. Democrats had no opportunity to respond before the vote on final passage of House File 516, but two of them rose a few minutes later to give points of personal privilege. Here’s Senator Pam Jochum:

My transcript:

[…] I do want to clarify something. Senator Smith, you had a very passionate closing argument, but I need to set the record straight here.

In 2007–and I was chair of the State Government Committee, I remember it well. It was my bill! What we voted for was election-day voter registration. To allow an unregistered voter to go to the polls on election day, register to vote by showing some identification, access to the ballot and casting a ballot that day. That’s what we did in 2007.

Here’s Senator Herman Quirmbach:

[…] And we also expanded the franchise to everyone living in a community, even if they had not gotten around to registering to vote by the usual deadline. We created a procedure by which they could register to vote on election day. We gave them more rights. Or we gave them a different way, rather, of exercising their right. We expanded access to the franchise.

Now somebody walking in on election day, I think it is reasonable to ask for a higher standard of proof of their identity and residence, and so we did include that safeguard in the same-day voter registration.

But we did not do anything of the kind for people who had already registered. So Senator Smith’s characterization of our vote as supporting voter ID is just a cheap shot. And the fact that he engaged in that in closing remarks on the bill was underhanded. […]

Jordan didn’t need to bring any advanced investigative journalism skills to the table here. Others had already explained why the Democratic bill of 2007 was not comparable in intent or effect to the Republican bill of 2017. Look how she approached the matter:

Although Democrats have said the legislation is an attempt to make it harder for minorities and the elderly to vote, Kaufmann says there already is a voter ID law on the books. And he’s right.

Framing a fact-check as “Although Democrats say X, this Republican says Y, and he’s right” would be appropriate if Y were a rebuttal to X. But what Kaufmann said about the election-day registration law in no way addressed whether this year’s bill is geared toward voter suppression.

Will House File 516 make it harder for certain groups of people to vote? A huge body of evidence from other states says it will. That’s why the AARP, American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, NAACP, League of United Latin American Citizens, Disability Rights Iowa, and other groups lobbied against the bill. In thirteen years since its creation, Iowa’s Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs had never taken a position on pending legislation until now. That’s how strongly commissioners believe new voter ID requirements will interfere with the rights of Asian-American citizens.

In addition, several people with in-depth knowledge of election administration in Iowa spelled out problems with House File 516 at a public hearing last month.

Jordan’s “analysis” for Cedar Rapids Gazette readers never assessed whether the Republican bill will create more obstacles for voters. Instead, she wrote:

Although Democrats have said the legislation is an attempt to make it harder for minorities and the elderly to vote, Kaufmann says there already is a voter ID law on the books. And he’s right.

Jordan proceeded to summarize the election-day voter registration law, noting the exception to the ID requirement “if another registered voter from the precinct signed an affidavit saying the registrant lives in the precinct.”

A bit lower down the page:

Kaufmann’s second claim relates to whether Iowa needs a voter ID law. Opponents have said Iowa has relatively few cases of voter fraud and doesn’t need a law estimated to cost up to $1 million. Kaufmann says there were 41 cases of felons voting in 2016.

Jordan then spent a few paragraphs sleuthing out how many Iowans with felony convictions tried to vote in the last presidential election, how many used provisional ballots that weren’t counted versus election-day ballots that were wrongly counted, how many were later charged with election misconduct, and so on.

But the Gazette’s reporter never grappled with the logical fallacy embedded in Kaufmann’s claim.

I have had people tell me there are no reports of fraud. Of course there isn’t because we have not been checking in a uniform way and in some cases at all. The fact of the matter is that 41 felons voted in Iowa in 2016 that [sic] should not have.

In other words, Kaufmann would have us believe that “checking in a uniform way” (through voter ID) will somehow stop Iowans with felony convictions from casting a ballot.

Yet no one in the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office could identify even one example of improper voting in 2016 that voter ID would have prevented. Linn County Auditor Joel Miller has said that the seven ex-felons who may have wrongly voted in his county all had photo IDs.

The conclusion of Jordan’s column was a head-scratcher.

Kaufmann’s rebuttal of Democrats’ digs at the voter ID bill is mostly accurate. However, he says the same-day registration law passed in 2007 “required an ID be shown.” That’s not strictly true, considering the law allowed a neighbor’s signed affidavit to stand in for a photo ID.

Although Kaufmann is correct at least 41 felons cast ballots last fall, nearly all of those signed provisional ballots that were ultimately rejected. That’s the way the system is supposed to work to prevent voter fraud.

Overall, we give Kaufmann a B.

According to Whitehead, Kaufmann cited the Gazette article at a legislative forum on April 8, implying the reporter had confirmed that House File 516 is a good bill.

Jordan deemed Kaufmann’s comments about a ten-year-old law to be “mostly accurate.” Unfortunately, she failed to see through the rhetorical ploy. Kaufmann never refuted “Democrats’ digs at the voter ID bill,” namely, that requiring ID for all in-person voters will stop some eligible Iowans from voting.

While Jordan did show readers that the current system weeded out most ballots cast by people with felony convictions, she didn’t mention (or maybe didn’t understand) that voter ID and signature verification would not help poll workers keep ballots out of the hands of those who are disqualified for that reason.

Electronic poll books could prevent voting by ineligible people. But state lawmakers could make that technology universally available without attaching a bunch of disenfranchising provisions to their “election integrity” bill.

Overall, I give Jordan’s fact-check an F.

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  • Gazette actively contributed to this bill passing, IMO

    Kaufmann specifically cited the grade of “B” in the Gazette at his forum April 8 in West Branch as proof that he’s right. So, thanks a lot, Gazette, for promoting the cause of those who wish to disenfranchise voters based on totally flawed research and sloppy logic.

    • the outcome was foreordained

      Republicans were going to pass a voter suppression bill regardless of what any newspaper said about it. That’s what they do everywhere they have power. So I don’t think the Gazette contributed to the bill passing. But I do think the Gazette misinformed its readers and gave Republicans support for a completely bogus analogy.

  • Thanks, very interesting

    I appreciate this info, which I haven’t seen elsewhere.