REPORT: NY Times Public Editor Is Right: Paper's Reporting Misses The Truth About Voter ID Half The Time

Despite Public Editor's Objections, Coverage Has Failed To Report In-Person Voter Impersonation Is Virtually Nonexistent

The New York Times did not follow the advice of its public editor, who has argued the paper should report that the type of voter fraud that strict voter ID laws are supposed to prevent is virtually nonexistent. In the two-year period between her current and past request that the paper add “the truth” to “he said, she said” coverage on voter ID and voter fraud, the Times reported the evidence on in-person voter impersonation in only 15 of 28 articles.

Public Editor Renews Call To Scuttle “False Balance” On Conservatives' Voter Fraud Claims

NY Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan: Voter Fraud Stories Need “A Single Clarifying Sentence.” Nearly two years after an identical plea, Sullivan once again argued the Times should avoid false equivalence on contentious topics with “significant evidence” to back up one side, like the challenges to unsupported claims of voter fraud used to pass strict voter ID in states across the country:

Two recent articles on voting disputes would have benefitted greatly from a single clarifying sentence -- one that would have cut through the “he said, she said” language that so many readers understandably tell me they dislike.

In each case, The Times described the dispute over efforts to require extra identification for voters. 


I've written about this several times, and I feel strongly about it. But the point apparently bears repeating: When there's significant evidence on a hot topic -- whether it's voting fraud or the reality of climate change -- The Times should not shy away from stating it, simply and clearly. [The New York Times, 9/2/14]

Sullivan In 2012: In Reporting On Voter Fraud And Voter ID, The Times Should “State Established Truths.” Two years ago, Sullivan criticized the Times' “he said, she said” framing on Republican-led campaigns to implement strict voter ID laws over the objections of voting rights advocates, which neglects to incorporate the fact that there is almost no evidence of the voter fraud that these restrictions are supposed to prevent:

Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.

“I hope it's not The Times's policy to move this matter back into the 'he said she said' realm,” he wrote. 

The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. “There's a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” he said. One side says there's not significant voter fraud; the other side says there's not significant voter suppression.

“It's not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.” 


It ought to go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.

The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership -- and the democracy -- will be. [The New York Times, 9/15/12]

Wash. Post: New Study Shows That Out Of A Billion Votes, Only 31 Involved The “Fraud ID Laws Are Designed To Stop.” In a guest post on Wonkblog, Loyola University Law School professor Justin Levitt revealed that his research found only 31 possible instances of in-person voter impersonation in the past 14 years:

Election fraud happens. But ID laws are not aimed at the fraud you'll actually hear about. Most current ID laws (Wisconsin is a rare exception) aren't designed to stop fraud with absentee ballots (indeed, laws requiring ID at the polls push more people into the absentee system, where there are plenty of real dangers). Or vote buying. Or coercion. Or fake registration forms. Or voting from the wrong address. Or ballot box stuffing by officials in on the scam. In the 243-page document that Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel filed on Monday with evidence of allegedly illegal votes in the Mississippi Republican primary, there were no allegations of the kind of fraud that ID can stop.

Instead, requirements to show ID at the polls are designed for pretty much one thing: people showing up at the polls pretending to be somebody else in order to each cast one incremental fake ballot. This is a slow, clunky way to steal an election. Which is why it rarely happens. [Wonkblog, The Washington Post, 8/6/14]

But Only 15 Of 28 NY Times Voter Fraud Stories Include This Critical Detail

Unsupported Voter Fraud Claims Get A Free Pass In 46 Percent of NY Times Stories. A Nexis search of original Times reporting by Media Matters of voter fraud coverage between Sullivan's criticism of September 15, 2012, and September 3, 2014, reveals her advice to the paper to include the virtual nonexistence of in-person voter impersonation in voter ID reporting was not taken:

NY Times Coverage Of In-Person Voter Fraud Allegations


Media Matters conducted a Nexis search for vot! w/15 fraud in New York Times news articles between September 15, 2012, and September 3, 2014. Editorials, op-eds, and blogs were excluded, as were international examples and any discussions of voter fraud not related to voter ID.

Articles that discussed the type of voter fraud that voter ID ostensibly prevents but did not include reporting on the evidence that in-person voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent were counted as an example of false balance.

Chart by Craig Harrington