Iowa Newspapers Largely Fail To Explain How New Bill Will Roll Back Voting Rights
Papers Also Omit The Cost Of The Bill From Reports
Blog ››› ››› JULIE ALDERMAN
Iowa newspapers have largely failed to explain the components of a new strict voter ID law aiming to restrict voting rights that Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, is expected to sign this week. By neglecting to mention these provisions in a majority of their news stories, Iowa outlets are omitting information about how the law could disenfranchise an estimated 260,000 voters in Iowa in upcoming elections and add to the state’s ongoing budget problems.
Branstad is expected to sign a bill that would require Iowans to present specific types of government-issued photo ID to vote. Additionally, the bill includes provisions to cut down early voting, eliminate straight-ticket voting, and reduce the number of days for absentee voting. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate's office estimates that the law “would cost about $1 million to fully implement” even as the “lawmakers already had to make budget cuts” as the state faces “a roughly $110 million shortfall.”
The top three Iowa newspapers, however, largely failed to include these details in their reporting on the bill between February 1 and April 14. A Media Matters analysis found:
Only 11 out of 30 news articles included information about changes to absentee voting.
Only 6 out of 30 news articles included information about changes to early voting.
Only 12 out of 30 news articles included information about the elimination of straight-ticket voting.
Only 11 out of 30 news articles included information about the cost of the bill.
Only 9 out of 30 news articles included information about the possible widespread voter disenfranchisement the law could cause.
The results did vary from paper to paper. For example, the Des Moines Register generally covered these changes and impacts in news articles more than the Cedar Rapids Gazette and Quad Cities Times. However, the Quad City Times published significantly fewer news articles than either the Register or the Gazette, which published nearly the same amount.
All these provisions that top Iowa newspapers largely failed to report have consequences for voters. In Iowa alone, nearly 700,000 voters requested absentee ballots during the 2016 election. If the bill passes, the changes to absentee voting would likely disenfranchise many of those voters. Early voting is also extremely important, especially for voters of color. As The Washington Post reported, early voting “addresses systemic barriers” minorities face when it comes to voting, adding, “costs associated with voting — in lost pay, in childcare, in transit fares — are higher for minorities and the poor. Which is why they are among the largest beneficiaries of early, flexible voting.” And straight-ticket voting is also an important resource for voters. In a decision that placed an injunction on Michigan’s straight-ticket voting ban, a federal judge wrote that “straight-party voting helps to save time in the voting process,” and banning the practice “would have a larger impact on African-American populations than white ones.”
Several articles did call out the false notion of voter fraud, which Republicans used to argue for this bill. Eleven of 30 articles noted that widespread voter fraud does not exist. Two articles referenced a specific report by the Associated Press which found that the state had "only been informed of 10 votes that were potentially improper out of 1.6 million cast statewide" in 2016. The report noted that "most of the instances were mistakes rather than fraud, and may not have been stopped by an identification requirement."
Additionally, the coverage largely neglected to explain the widespread voter disenfranchisement the law could create. Only nine of the 30 articles mention the fact that thousands are at risk of being ineligible to vote. Most of those mentions explained specifically that voters could be ineligible because they may not have the proper ID. According to The Nation, the bill could disenfranchise the 260,000 eligible voters in the state who “don’t have a driver’s license or non-operator ID.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa found that the Iowa bill “would make voting more difficult and more confusing for voters.” Voter disenfranchisement has been a consequence of similar voter ID laws, often hitting minority voters the hardest. By not explaining the specific measures in the bill, and the costs attached when it becomes the law, Iowa newspapers largely failed to equip their readers with the proper knowledge about the proposed legislation.
Media Matters used Nexis to search The Des Moines Register, The Quad City Times, and The Cedar Rapids Gazette for all permutations of the word “vote” within 50 words of either “ID” or “identification” in articles between February 1 and April 14. News articles were included in this study if they were primarily about the state’s proposed voting rights law.
Articles were then coded for mentions of the cost of the bill and changes made to absentee voting, early voting, and straight-ticket voting, as well as mentions of the fact that voter fraud is not widespread, the ability for the law to disenfranchise voters, and the AP report on the lack of voter fraud in Iowa in 2016.
Chart by Sarah Wasko