Right-wing media run with dubious claim that Michelle Obama "may have violated" election law

Blog ››› ››› JOCELYN FONG & ERIC SCHROECK

On Thursday, right-wing media outlets seized on the dubious claim that Michelle Obama may have violated election law when she cast an early ballot at a voting center in Chicago. However, according to several reports, this doesn't appear to be true.

The source of the claim appeared to be the Drudge Report, which in turn cited "a pool reporter from the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES at the scene":

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The headline links to a report by Drudge that states:

First lady Michelle Obama appears to have violated Illinois law -- when she engaged in political discussion at a polling place!

The drama began after Mrs. Obama stopped off at the Martin Luther King Center on the south side of Chicago to cast an early vote.

After finishing at the machine, Obama went back to the desk and handed in her voting key.

She let voters including electrician Dennis Campbell, 56, take some photos.

"She was telling me how important it was to vote to keep her husband's agenda going," Campbell said.

According to a pool reporter from the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES at the scene, the conversation took place INSIDE the voting center, not far from the booths.

However, the pool report from Chicago Sun-Times reporter Abdon M. Pallasch did not make the allegation that Michelle Obama spoke about her husband's agenda "inside the voting center," nor did Pallasch's longer article.

And the Chicago Tribune reported:

Obama abided by election laws that prohibit electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place.

She did pose for pictures and told one voter: "Make sure you get everybody out there voting. This one counts, as much as the other one."

Still, this didn't stop the right-wing media from running with the dubious claim throughout the day on Thursday.

On Fox News' Special Report -- one of Fox's purportedly objective news programs -- host Bret Baier said, "There are questions right now about whether first lady Michelle Obama may have violated Illinois law when she voted early today in Chicago." From Special Report:

BAIER: There are questions right now about whether first lady Michelle Obama may have violated Illinois law when she voted early today in Chicago. The print pool reports that Mrs. Obama spoke with some other voters after turning in her ballot. One of them told the pool reporter, quote, "She was telling me how important it was to vote to keep her husband's agenda going." However a spokesman with the Chicago Board of Elections says that never happened. If it did, there is a question about whether that breaks the law against campaigning in a polling place. We'll keep working on this story and see what the White House says and let you know.

Fox News correspondent Steve Centanni also reported the "questions" on FoxNews.com.

Numerous other right-wing media jumped on the bandwagon. Jim Hoft cited Drudge's and Baier's reports to claim, "Uh-oh... Michelle O Campaigns In Polling Place!! May Have Violated Law." The Daily Caller stated that Michelle Obama "reportedly violated Illinois election laws by encouraging voters to support President Obama at a polling place in Chicago," linking to Pallasch's Chicago Sun-Times report, which did not mention that Obama may have violated any laws.

J. Christian Adams at Pajamas Media and Las Vegas Review-Journal publisher Sherman Frederick both pushed the claim as well, with each of them linking to Drudge's report.

But as FoxNews.com later reported, according to a Chicago elections official, "Obama told the group how important it is to vote early and vote in general, a perfectly appropriate suggestion at a polling place":

But did Obama actually break the law?

It all depends on what Obama actually said to the group of voters. Had she specifically told Campbell he needed to vote for a candidate who would support President Obama's agenda, she would indeed have violated Illinois election laws, as would someone wearing a campaign button or distributing political literature inside a polling place. But according to a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, Obama made no such statement.

Rather, the elections official said, Obama told the group how important it is to vote early and vote in general, a perfectly appropriate suggestion at a polling place. Campbell's characterization of the conversation may simply have included his political position, that he voted "to keep her husband's agenda going," but not that the first lady had specifically encouraged Campbell to support Obama-friendly candidates.

Even if one of the other voters had mentioned their support for President Obama and the first lady agreed, she would still not be in violation of election statutes because she would not, in that case, have initiated the political conversation. The Chicago Board of Elections has not, at this time, made an inquiry into the matter.

Further, FoxNews.com reported that Pallasch -- on whose pool report Drudge based his original claim -- said that the conversation between Obama and Campbell "seemed completely innocuous based on Campbell's recollection." From FoxNews.com:

Pallasch, of the Chicago Sun-Times, told Fox News the conversation seemed completely innocuous based on Campbell's recollection. "When I wrote the pool report and the story, it did not occur to me that Mr. Campbell's second-hand account of his mutually agreeable conversation with Mrs. Obama might constitute a violation of the law," Pallasch wrote in an email responding to a Fox News request.

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