Mark Obenshain: Four Pinocchios for the Washington Post on voter ID

obenshain2We live in the age of the fact checkers. There’s PolitiFact,, and of course the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker.” But when the media itself gets it wrong, who will fact check the fact checkers?

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that over 450,000 voters lacked proper identification to cast ballots in Virginia. That’s a shocking number—so let’s take a look at it, Fact Checker style.

About 450,000 voters in Virginia may lack the proper identification needed to cast a ballot in the November midterm elections, the Virginia State Board of Elections said Thursday.

— The Washington Post, September 25, 2014


The Facts

Right off the bat, the Washington Post has a problem: the Department of Elections never said that. Instead, the documentation they provided to the Post showed a much lower number: under 200,000.

Eventually, after the Department itself called them on the numbers, the Post issued a correction. But that’s only scratching the surface of this bad reporting, because the number they trumpeted has very little to do with who does or doesn’t have ID.

The Department of Elections provided a “filtered” count to the Washington Post, which that august newspaper evidently concluded wasn’t newsworthy enough to include in an article that gave space to three critics of Photo ID. The Department’s filtered count isn’t perfect, but it’s a best high-bound estimate of individuals whomight actually vote and don’t already have a known alternative ID.

The filtered count excludes military, overseas, and federal-only voters—we already know that they have photo IDs, whether or not they have a Virginia driver’s license—and then limits the total pool to voters whose last activity (e.g., voter registration, voting) took place during or after the last presidential election. With the filter applied, we’re looking at 93,117 voters, compared to the 457,931 originally reported by the Washington Post.

And even that doesn’t tell the full story. Midterm election turnout is a lot lower than presidential turnout (compare 71.8% turnout in 2012 vs. 44.0% turnout in 2010), which cuts into the number even further.

We’re still not done, though, because there are of course plenty of non-dmv IDs that can be used to vote, from U.S. passports to student or employee IDs to other government-issued photo IDs to, of course, the new (and free) Virginia Voter Photo Identification Cards.

Remember, moreover, that any disabled or homebound individual is automatically entitled to vote absentee by mail—and that doesn’t require a photo ID. The voter in a nursing home who hasn’t had a driver’s license in years? Doesn’t need one; doesn’t need any photo ID to vote.

And if a voter really doesn’t have any form of Photo ID? They’re still covered. They can go to their registrar’s office and get a free one. They can even, on Election Day, go to any registrar’s office and get a free temporary ID to use at the polls that day, or to ensure that their provisional ballot gets counted.

Critics of Photo ID have long claimed that hundreds of thousands of voters would be affected. During the debate on passage of SB 1256, the liberal Commonwealth Institute issued a breathless reported estimating that Virginia might have to issue as many as 869,703 free IDs at a cost of $20.2 million.

Fast-forward to this week. So far, registrars have issued a total of 1,083 of them at an estimated cost of—wait for it—$3,250 (not counting initial equipment expenditures).

When legislators debated SB 1256, the State Board of Elections estimated the issuance of 4,299 free IDs a year for the first few years. We’ll have an accurate count soon enough, but right now, that figure looks to be on the mark. The number the Post used is over 100 times higher.

The 450,000 voters figure trumpeted by the Washington Post is just the latest in a long line of overwrought numbers that obscure the fact that Virginia’s voter ID law won’t deny any legitimate voter the right to vote.


The Pinocchio Test

If the Washington Post can make such a staggering journalistic error, they can certainly forgive my appropriation of their “Pinocchio Test” to their own claim.

Not only was the Post off by 130% in its initial headline, but it cited a nearly irrelevant figure—nearly 500% off the more pertinent figure provided by the Department of Elections, which is itself a high-bound figure which was never intended to indicate that these individuals lacked photo ID.

Once you got past the Post’s headline, the article qualified its claim, noting that alternative IDs can be used and referencing the provisional ballot process, but the paper repeatedly conflated driver’s licenses with DMV-issued IDs (many voters have non-driver’s license photo IDs) and gave ample ink to critics of the law crafting highly unrealistic horror stories. That’s not journalism; it’s PR for Democratic critics of the bill.

Mark Obenshain is a Harrisonburg state senator.

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