Media revive pattern of reporting on alleged "voter fraud" concerns, despite lack of evidence

››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

Media outlets have revived the cyclical practice of highlighting allegations by conservatives of voter fraud, and the primary target of most recent allegations appears to be ACORN, over reports that some people hired by ACORN have submitted false or redundant registration forms. The media are devoting great attention to these charges, even though in past election cycles, charges of voter fraud have largely proven empty.

In recent weeks, media outlets have revived the cyclical practice of highlighting allegations by conservatives of voter fraud. In this election cycle, the primary target of those allegations appears to be the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), over reports that some people hired by ACORN have submitted false or redundant registration forms. Once again, the media are devoting great attention to these charges, even though in past election cycles, charges of voter fraud have largely proven baseless.

Indeed, according to the Nexis news database, in the period October 6-15, the phrase "voter fraud" has appeared in 221 articles in U.S. newspapers, including five Washington Post articles, two New York Times articles, and one USA Today article. Moreover, "voter fraud" has appeared in 43 CNN news transcripts, 31 Fox News transcripts, and four MSNBC transcripts during that time. For example, The Washington Post reported on October 14 that "Republican officials and advisers to Sen. John McCain" accused ACORN of "fomenting voter fraud." It also reported that "[t]he charges have come repeatedly, in news releases, conference calls to reporters and remarks on the campaign trail. Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz called ACORN a 'quasi-criminal group' last week during one of a series of news conferences, charging that the group was committing fraud during its voter-registration drives. 'We don't do that lightly,' RNC chief counsel Sean Cairncross said."

The media's focus on these charges just before elections is not new. A Media Matters for America search of Nexis indicates that numerous stories about voter fraud appeared in major newspapers and on television news in the weeks leading up to the 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006 elections. Yet the U.S. Department of Justice crime statistics cast doubt on the existence of widespread voter fraud. On April 12, 2007, The New York Times reported, "Five years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department has turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court records and interviews."

In an April 1 American Prospect article, U.S. News & World Report and Washington Monthly contributing editor Art Levine wrote:

Using various tactics -- including media smears, bogus lawsuits, restrictive new voting laws and policies, and flimsy prosecutions -- Republican operatives, election officials, and the GOP-controlled Justice Department have limited voting access and gone after voter-registration groups such as ACORN. Which should come as no surprise: In building support for initiatives raising the minimum wage and kindred ballot measures, ACORN has registered, in partnership with Project Vote, 1.6 million largely Democratic-leaning voters since 2004. All told, non-profit groups registered over three million new voters in 2004, about the same time that Republican and Justice Department efforts to publicize "voter fraud" and limit voting access became more widespread. And attacking ACORN has been a central element of a systematic GOP disenfranchisement agenda to undermine Democratic prospects before each Election Day.

In fact, while a 2005 Senate Republican Policy Committee paper claimed, "[v]oter fraud continues to plague our nation's federal elections, diluting and canceling out the lawful votes of the vast majority of Americans," Justice Department statistics indicate that few actual instances of voter fraud have been prosecuted in recent years. According to a report by the Justice Department's Criminal Division of prosecutions between October 2002 and September 2005, the Justice Department charged 95 people with "election fraud" and convicted 55. Among those, however, just 17 individuals were convicted for casting fraudulent ballots; cases against three other individuals were pending at the time of the report. In addition, the Justice Department convicted one election official of submitting fraudulent ballots and convicted five individuals of registration fraud, with cases against 12 individuals pending at the time of the report. Thirty-two individuals were convicted of other "election fraud" issues, including people convicted of offenses arising from "a scheme to block the phone lines used by two Manchester [New Hampshire] organizations to arrange drives to the polls during the 2002 general election" -- in other words, these convictions were connected to voter suppression efforts, not voter fraud. Several other people listed in the report were convicted of vote buying.

Additionally, a 2007 report by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice stated:

There have been several documented and widely publicized instances in which registration forms have been fraudulently completed and submitted. But it is extraordinarily difficult to find reported cases in which individuals have submitted registration forms in someone else's name in order to impersonate them at the polls. Furthermore, most reports of registration fraud do not actually claim that the fraud happens so that ineligible people can vote at the polls. Indeed, we are aware of no recent substantiated case in which registration fraud has resulted in fraudulent votes being cast.

Nevertheless, media outlets continue to report on allegations of possible voter fraud in advance of elections. For instance, between October 14, 2004, and the November 2 election that year, two USA Today articles, 49 CNN transcripts, and 37 Fox News transcripts containing the term "voter fraud" appear in Nexis. Media Matters searched Nexis for news reports containing the term "voter fraud" in the weeks leading up to the 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006 elections in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and in news transcripts from CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC. (Media Matters did not examine the substantive content of these reports). Results of the search were as followed:

October 14-November 7, 2000

Los Angeles Times: 5

The New York Times: 1

The Washington Post: 1

CNN: 6

Fox News: 2

MSNBC: 1

October 14-November 5, 2002

Los Angeles Times: 8

The Washington Post: 5

USA Today: 1

Fox News: 7

CNN: 6

MSNBC: 1

October 14-November 2, 2004

The Washington Post: 10

Los Angeles Times: 8

The New York Times: 8

USA Today: 2

CNN: 49

Fox News: 37

NBC: 10

MSNBC: 9

ABC: 3

CBS: 3

October 14-November 7, 2006

The New York Times: 6

Los Angeles Times: 2

The Washington Post: 2

USA Today: 2

CNN: 16

Fox News: 9

MSNBC: 4

ABC: 2

CBS: 2

From the April 12, 2007, New York Times article:

Five years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department has turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court records and interviews.

Although Republican activists have repeatedly said fraud is so widespread that it has corrupted the political process and, possibly, cost the party election victories, about 120 people have been charged and 86 convicted as of last year.

Most of those charged have been Democrats, voting records show. Many of those charged by the Justice Department appear to have mistakenly filled out registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules, a review of court records and interviews with prosecutors and defense lawyers show.

In Miami, an assistant United States attorney said many cases there involved what were apparently mistakes by immigrants, not fraud.

In Wisconsin, where prosecutors have lost almost twice as many cases as they won, charges were brought against voters who filled out more than one registration form and felons seemingly unaware that they were barred from voting.

One ex-convict was so unfamiliar with the rules that he provided his prison-issued identification card, stamped "Offender," when he registered just before voting.

A handful of convictions involved people who voted twice. More than 30 were linked to small vote-buying schemes in which candidates generally in sheriff's or judge's races paid voters for their support.

A federal panel, the Election Assistance Commission, reported last year that the pervasiveness of fraud was debatable. That conclusion played down findings of the consultants who said there was little evidence of it across the country, according to a review of the original report by The New York Times that was reported on Wednesday.

Posted In
Elections, Voting Rights & Issues
Stories/Interests
Attacks on Progressives, Propaganda/Noise Machine
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