As Republican lawmakers in Virginia moved to further tighten the state's voter ID requirements, the state's two largest newspapers abandoned the larger factual context of the debate by failing to report the scarcity of voter fraud and the state's history of voter disenfranchisement.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch and Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot reported that both a Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee and the Senate Privileges and Election Committee approved separate bills that would further tighten Virginia's voter ID requirements. The newspapers each employed a he-said/she-said presentation of the debate and failed to inform readers of the fact that in-person voter fraud -- the kind of fraud ID laws are supposedly meant to mitigate -- is extremely rare.
From the Times-Dispatch, which characterized the arguments for and against the proposed photo identification election bill in shallow back-and-forth fashion:
Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1256, has said it would help ensure integrity in elections and deter voter fraud, while critics said it would further disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters.
Democrats, voting groups and civil rights organizations accuse Republicans of attempting to suppress the vote.
Meanwhile, the Virginian-Pilot balanced a pro-voter ID anecdote from a House panel witness who found "that someone else had voted under her name in 2008" against "a variety of other speakers -- representing groups from the League of Women Voters to the NAACP," who opposed the ID requirement "as costly and unnecessary, saying it would disenfranchise minority, elderly and low-income Virginians."
The Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot ignored objective realities about the kind of "voter fraud" Sen. Obenshain claimed to be fighting. According to NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, in-person voter fraud is "more rare than getting struck by lightning." Investigations by The New York Times, News21 and Demos have all found little or no evidence of in-person voter fraud, and there are no credible claims that voter fraud swayed the outcomes of any major election in 2012.
The editorial board of the Times-Dispatch acknowledged the scarcity of voter fraud in an editorial on January 17, describing voter impersonation as "virtually nonexistent" and noting that "the evidence of need for [tightened voter-ID requirements] is almost as scant as the evidence of Bigfoot." Yet this fact remained absent from the newspaper's January 30 news coverage of the voter ID debate.
Furthermore, both newspapers missed an opportunity to inform readers about Virginia's history of race-based voter disenfranchisement -- a history that remains procedurally relevant thanks to the Voting Rights Act, which (via Section 5 of the Act) requires states like Virginia to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court before they may finalize changes to their electoral system.
Virginia media followed in the footsteps of the Associated Press, which failed to note the importance of the VRA in a similar story about a Republican voter ID push in North Carolina earlier this month. While the Virginian-Pilot acknowledged the existence of the VRA in the lawmaking process, it failed to explain the state's history of voter disenfranchisement, which is why the VRA Section 5 applies to Virginia. The Times-Dispatch failed to mention the Act at all.
As conservative legislators in nine states renew the push for restrictive voter ID laws, their efforts have been aided by state media outlets that continue to ignore or misinform readers on the issue.
Republican lawmakers in several states -- Alaska, Arkansas, Missouri, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- have stated that new or more restrictive voter ID rules will top their agendas in 2013. (Republicans control both houses of the legislature in all those states but New York and West Virginia. In Virginia, the GOP controls the House and maintains a 50/50 split with Democrats in the state Senate.) These proposals come just weeks after the 2012 election, in which there was no evidence of massive voter fraud.
A Media Matters analysis of the largest newspapers in each state found that coverage of these new voter ID initiatives has been largely devoid of context about the overstated dangers of voter fraud or of the significant influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadowy organization dedicated to pushing a homogeneous conservative agenda state-by-state. Only four of the nine newspapers covered the 2013 initiatives at all, and only one mentioned ALEC.
A two-part Media Matters examinantion of the largest newspapers in CO, NH, NV, OH, PA and VA from July 1-August 15 and from August 16-October 31, 2012 revealed a variety of shortcomings in the way clean energy and regulatory issues are covered by those publications.