Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily -- whose work Media Matters for America frequently cites -- made a questionable assumption in order to take issue with a February 15 Media Matters item about voter turnout in Iraq.
The item noted that many media outlets and commentators have likened turnout in Iraq's recent elections with that in the November 2004 U.S. presidential election by making an apples-to-oranges comparison. These media comparisons use turnout percentages for Iraq that are based on the percent of registered voters who actually vote versus turnout figures for the U.S. based on the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote.
In a February 16 post titled "A Complaint that Doesn't Register," CJR Daily took issue with the Media Matters item, asserting:
[I]t leaves out one important fact that kept us from writing yesterday: The set of registered voters and the set of eligible voters in the past Iraqi election were virtually identical. And pretty much everyone agrees that no one has any idea about the definite size of that body of voters.
But this "one important fact" isn't a fact at all -- it's a highly dubious assumption.
As CJR Daily noted, "All Iraqi citizens over the age of 18 were eligible to vote and those holding a valid ration card for the UN 'Oil for Food' program were considered registered." In order to conclude, as CJR Daily does, that "the set of registered voters and the set of eligible voters ... were virtually identical," one must assume that virtually every Iraqi citizen over the age of 18 holds a valid ration card for the oil-for-food program.
Given the fact that the oil-for-food program ended in November 2003; that the program's efficiency and efficacy have been widely questioned; that only those residents of a war-torn nation who still hold ration cards for a long-defunct program and whose ration card information is correct were considered "registered"; and that nobody even knows how many eligible voters there are in Iraq since the country does not conduct a census, we have no idea why CJR Daily would assume that the universe of eligible voters and that of registered voters were "virtually identical."
CJR Daily even noted that "the list of registered voters was just as unreliable as the estimate of eligible voters." If both lists were "unreliable," how can CJR Daily possibly conclude that the numbers are "virtually identical"?
CJR Daily concluded:
The Media Matters post isn't totally off base. As the group notes, it's evident that the media has eaten up the 58 percent figure and is touting it as cold, hard fact. But the real issue here, as with Social Security projections, is the press' failure to explore the validity of the numbers being tossed around. And that includes Media Matters.
It seems that the real issue here is that too many are making a curious assumption that every eligible voter in Iraq was registered to vote. And that includes CJR Daily.