In Virginia, skirmishes in the voting wars

O'Keefe sting, trashed voter forms lead to some solid coverage

VIRGINIA — With Election Day fast approaching and this swing state looming large in the contests for both the White House and the Senate, there’s a chance for a large-scale outbreak in the “voting wars”—the running battle over the way elections are conducted.

In recent weeks, in fact, there have already been two skirmishes over those issues—one involving a Republican operative accused of throwing out voter registration forms, another in which the son of a Democratic Congressman was taped discussing how to commit voter fraud. Both stories have attracted national coverage, but some smaller newsrooms here did a decent job of holding their own. Let’s take a look.

The incident of the Dumpster-bound registration forms occurred in Harrisonburg, in the Shenandoah Valley. A Pennsylvania man named Colin Small hired by the state GOP to register voters faces multiple charges after eight registration forms were found in a trash bin.

One of the early media mentions of this story actually came on Oct. 17 from a Virginia-based political blogger, who cited both a Facebook post and a local TV account. But once the news was out there and the investigation turned into an arrest, the crew at Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record did strong work in making the story their own.

Jeremy Hunt’s report on Oct. 19 on the arrest of the worker was solid and thorough, a nice job of deadline reporting. Follow-up coverage was also thorough and informative, including a report from Preston Knight on the state attorney general, a Republican, taking over the investigation, and Democrats asking for a look by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. There’s good work here in laying out both the political players and the complex backstory, as this passage from Knight’s story shows (unfortunately, live links to the coverage are no longer available):

The Republican Party of Virginia contracted with Pinpoint to conduct voter registration efforts.

Some of the Pinpoint employees, including Small, had worked for Strategic Allied in Virginia until Sept. 27, when the Republican National Committee fired that registration firm over fraud allegations in Florida.

Small continued to work for the Virginia GOP as an employee of Pinpoint in Harrisonburg until his firing by the state party after his arrest last week.

Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said his office does not believe widespread fraud took place. Authorities have not disclosed a possible motive for last week’s dumping, but a source said Small seems to have missed the registration deadline to turn them in, panicked and threw them away.

In Virginia, third-party groups that register voters must turn forms in to registrars within 15 days. All the eligible voters whose forms were tossed—five forms are from county residents—can still vote Nov. 6.

Whatever Small’s motives, this episode seems likely to exacerbate fears on the left that the GOP wants to suppress the vote. The second incident—which was at once more and less of a story—plays into fears on the right about voter fraud.

That series of events got underway with the release of a video showing Patrick Moran, son of Democratic Rep. Jim Moran, entertaining queries from a volunteer who was hell-bent on voter fraud. The volunteer turned out to be working for right-wing activist James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, who was taping Moran surreptitiously. (CJR has written about O’Keefe many times in the past; here are a few.) Patrick Moran resigned from his post as field director in his father’s reelection campaign soon after the video was posted on Oct. 24.

Moran’s district is in the D.C. suburbs, which means that one of the local papers is The Washington Post—hardly a small outlet. The Post’s Errin Haines turned in a measured dispatch on the resignation, noting up high that the younger Moran was the target of a sting and that in the video he “does not explicitly advocate or condone the worker’s suggestion”—but also that he eventually offers some advice and tells the worker, “I respect your initiative.”

More small-scale local coverage came from outlets like the online newsrooms Arlington Now and Arlington Patch. They offered the basics—links to the video, assemblages of quotes from the usual suspects, new developments like the opening of a police investigation—but in general did less than they might have to advance or contextualize the story.

Arlington Patch did offer a more expansive look at the police investigation, though, and gave readers food for thought with a link to an interesting Los Angeles Times column by Jon Healey. The core of Healey’s take on the Moran video was this:

It’s damning, no question about it. Recognizing as much, Moran resigned from his father’s campaign seemingly within minutes of the video’s release on YouTube.

It does not, however, prove anything about the sort of in-person voter fraud that Republicans are so worked up about. In fact, it makes a pretty good case that you’d be daft to attempt it.

Healey’s take is clear-eyed both about Moran’s behavior and about how provocateurs like O’Keefe play the game and work to create news coverage that amplifies their message. (Closer to home, columnist Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch also had some astute thoughts on the “fraud” theme.) That’s an important mix, and a useful model to reporters and commentators alike. The Moran and Small cases were two skirmishes; a larger battle may still be coming. As they cover that story, journalists here in Virginia have an obligation to make sure the electoral machinery is protecting every citizen’s vote—and at the same time a responsibility not to get spun by the partisans, and to keep things in perspective.

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.