Virginia News Coverage Ignores Reality As GOP Pushes For Tighter Voter ID

As Republican lawmakers in Virginia moved to further tighten the state's voter ID requirements, the state's two largest newspapers abandoned the larger factual context of the debate by failing to report the scarcity of voter fraud and the state's history of voter disenfranchisement.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch and Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot reported that both a Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee and the Senate Privileges and Election Committee approved separate bills that would further tighten Virginia's voter ID requirements. The newspapers each employed a he-said/she-said presentation of the debate and failed to inform readers of the fact that in-person voter fraud -- the kind of fraud ID laws are supposedly meant to mitigate -- is extremely rare.

From the Times-Dispatch, which characterized the arguments for and against the proposed photo identification election bill in shallow back-and-forth fashion: 

Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1256, has said it would help ensure integrity in elections and deter voter fraud, while critics said it would further disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters.


Democrats, voting groups and civil rights organizations accuse Republicans of attempting to suppress the vote.

Meanwhile, the Virginian-Pilot balanced a pro-voter ID anecdote from a House panel witness who found “that someone else had voted under her name in 2008”  against “a variety of other speakers -- representing groups from the League of Women Voters to the NAACP,” who opposed the ID requirement “as costly and unnecessary, saying it would disenfranchise minority, elderly and low-income Virginians.”  

The Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot ignored objective realities about the kind of “voter fraud”  Sen. Obenshain claimed to be fighting. According to NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, in-person voter fraud is “more rare than getting struck by lightning.” Investigations by The New York TimesNews21 and Demos have all found little or no evidence of in-person voter fraud, and there are no credible claims that voter fraud swayed the outcomes of any major election in 2012.

The editorial board of the Times-Dispatch acknowledged the scarcity of voter fraud in an editorial on January 17, describing voter impersonation as “virtually nonexistent” and noting that  “the evidence of need for [tightened voter-ID requirements] is almost as scant as the evidence of Bigfoot.”  Yet this fact remained absent from the newspaper's January 30 news coverage of the voter ID debate.

Furthermore, both newspapers missed an opportunity to inform readers about Virginia's history of race-based voter disenfranchisement -- a history that remains procedurally relevant thanks to the Voting Rights Act, which (via Section 5 of the Act) requires states like Virginia to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court before they may finalize changes to their electoral system.

Virginia media followed in the footsteps of the Associated Press, which failed to note the importance of the VRA in a similar story about a Republican voter ID push in North Carolina earlier this month. While the Virginian-Pilot acknowledged the existence of the VRA in the lawmaking process, it failed to explain the state's history of voter disenfranchisement, which is why the VRA Section 5 applies to Virginia. The Times-Dispatch failed to mention the Act at all.