CBS Evening News Offers False “He Said, She Said” Equivalence In Voter ID Report

A recent CBS Evening News report on unnecessarily strict voter ID laws engaged in the sort of “he said, she said” reporting that ignores the virtual non-existence of in-person voter fraud, a type of false equivalence that media critics have widely condemned.

On October 9, the Supreme Court issued an order that prevented Wisconsin's voter ID law -- one of the strictest in the nation -- from going into effect just weeks before the November elections. Opponents of the law argued that the new identification requirements were not only unconstitutional but would have caused “chaos” at polling places and could have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters who lacked the appropriate ID. A similarly restrictive voter ID law was struck down by a federal judge in Texas that same day, with the judge calling the law an “unconstitutional poll tax” that unfairly discriminated against the poor and people of color.

These types of strict voter ID laws are popular among Republican lawmakers, despite the fact that they are redundant and there is no evidence of widespread, in-person voter fraud -- the type of fraud voter ID laws are designed to prevent. Nevertheless, on the October 10 edition of CBS Evening News, correspondent Chip Reid's segment on the recent legal decisions affecting Texas and Wisconsin's voter ID laws failed to report this simple truth about voter suppression:

Although Reid's report included the perspective of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Sherrilyn Ifill, it presented her statement that widespread in-person voter fraud is a myth as her opinion, or her “view.” In reality, in-person voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. According to a recent study by election law professor Justin Levitt, only 31 potential instances of this kind of fraud have been found between 2000 and 2014, out of over 1 billion ballots cast during that time period. The Wisconsin Supreme Court cited just one example of voter fraud in its decision that initially upheld the state's voter ID requirement -- and it involved mail-in absentee ballots, not the type of fraud that could be prevented with voter ID. In Texas, the court found “only two cases of in-person voter impersonation fraud [that] were prosecuted to a conviction” in the ten years prior to the passage of the state's voter ID law, “a period of time in which 20 million votes were cast.”

Or, as explained by a statistic quoted by federal Circuit Judge Richard Posner in his condemnation of the Wisconsin law, “out of 146 million registered voters, this is a ratio of one case of voter fraud for every 14.6 million eligible voters -- more than a dozen times less likely than being struck by lightning.” 

CBS' report appears to run into the same false equivalence problem that the New York Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan (and others) has repeatedly called on her paper to address. In a recent column, Sullivan suggested that the Times' reports on voter ID laws would “benefit greatly from a single clarifying sentence” stating the fact that there is significant evidence that in-person voter fraud is exceedingly rare, in order to “cut through the 'he said, she said' language that so many readers understandably tell me they dislike.”

The Times' editorial board seems to be fully on board with Sullivan's suggestion. In a recent editorial, the board called the existence of in-person voter fraud “the big lie behind voter ID laws” and agreed with the Texas court's finding that the state's law was intentionally discriminatory:

[Voter ID] laws have been aggressively pushed in many states by Republican lawmakers who say they are preventing voter fraud, promoting electoral “integrity” and increasing voter turnout. None of that is true. There is virtually no in-person voter fraud; the purpose of these laws is to suppress voting.