In sports or politics, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard

Times-Dispatch coverage of voter registration controversy skimps on partisan angle

VIRGINIA — No matter the game, you’ve got to know who’s on whose team to keep up with the action.

That adage also applies in one of my favorite spectator sports, politics. Unless you want to resort to visiting multiple websites and keeping Google open while you’re reading, you depend on the reporter to provide details such as party affiliation—and potential partisan motivation—in any given report.

That’s especially true when it comes to hot-button national issues such as voter ID laws and voter fraud concerns, which typically break down along party lines. So it’s been odd to see the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in a series of articles about a voter registration controversy involving the Washington DC-based Voter Participation Center, provide scant details about partisan implications—and so leave some readers without the full story.

The Times-Dispatch first brought the story to light with some enterprise reporting on July 22. Here’s the attention-grabbing hed and the first few graphs of that article:

Pets, deceased receive forms to vote in Va., fueling complaints

Voter-registration forms being mailed to Virginia residents are addressed to dead relatives, children, family members in other states, non-U.S. citizens, people with similar names, existing registered voters and residents’ cats and dogs.

The errant forms are among tens of thousands being distributed in Virginia by a national voter-registration group that pre-populates the documents with key information, including names and addresses of prospective voters.

The mailings have become a source of confusion among many who receive them and are creating headaches for local registrar offices, which must spend time in a busy presidential election year investigating which of the forms are legitimate.

The mailings also can create opportunities for voter fraud, election officials say.

Virginia election officials have contacted the nonprofit group, the Washington-based Voter Participation Center, to express their concern and ask it to adjust its methods

It’s a nice summation and a good lead-in to an entertaining, informative piece, but the Times-Dispatch dances around the partisan aspects of the story. As political junkies likely know, and other readers likely don’t, “voter fraud” is typically a Republican concern, and many Republican-controlled states (Virginia included) have recently enacted stricter voter ID laws and stepped up scrutiny of voter registration efforts. Their Democratic counterparts generally contend that the main effect of the GOP initiatives is to suppress legitimate votes, disproportionately from minority groups.

There were some clues about this dynamic in the Times-Dispatch‘s coverage—mostly, about the Voter Participation Center. That first article said that the Center’s registration outreach efforts “target[] Democrat-leaning voting blocks such as young adults, unmarried women, African-Americans and Latinos.” A July 29 follow-up story featured this description:

The Voter Participation Center—headed by [Page] Gardner, a former campaign staff member for [President Bill] Clinton—says it is nonpartisan. But its mailings target traditionally Democratic voters such as unmarried women, African-Americans, Latinos and young adults.

The group also is linked to and is assisted in its fundraising by the Bonner Group, a Democratic political fundraising firm.

Useful stuff. But such labeling was often absent when it came to the other players in this drama—even though including it could have helped readers navigate the story and provided insight into possible motives.

For example, a June 25 article about Mitt Romney’s call for an investigation of the Center’s efforts identified Romney as a Republican—but not Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, to whom Romney’s appeal was directed. (The Times-Dispatch helpfully reported in an update that Cuccinelli’s office said a request for an investigation would have to be initiated by the State Board of Elections. It would have been even more helpful to note that the board is nonpartisan and that it has three members, currently two Republicans and one Democrat.)

On July 26, a Times-Dispatch article detailed a documented example of fraudulent voting stemming from use of a Voter Participation Center mailing: In 2008, the Center mailed a form to a felon living in Louisa County, who used it to illegally register and cast a ballot in the presidential election. In 2010, the woman pleaded guilty to two counts of election fraud and received a suspended sentence of 10 years. The main source for the article is Thomas A. Garrett Jr., who prosecuted the case and is now a state senator. Not mentioned, except in the cutline beneath the voter registration application, is the fact that Garrett is a Republican.

The laxness about identifying party affiliations was most striking in that July 29 story, which included passages like this one:

This year, Louisiana is experiencing problems similar to Virginia’s, prompting Secretary of State Tom Schedler to comment that a recent mailing “opens the door to voter fraud.”

Schedler is a Republican.

And this:

Similar issues in Arizona in 2007 prompted then-Secretary of State Jan Brewer, now the governor, to issue a warning to residents, calling the mailings “deceptive.”

Gov. Brewer is a Republican.

And this:

Registration mailings from the third-party group and others like it were made possible by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, a law vehemently opposed by then-Virginia Gov. George Allen, who’s now running for the U.S. Senate.

Allen in 1993 vetoed a bill from the state legislature to enact the law, claiming it would open the door for voter fraud, and was subsequently sued by the U.S. Justice Department.

The state was ultimately forced to comply.
Allen is also a Republican.

The partisan nature of the issue doesn’t mean concerns about the Voter Participation Center’s protocols are unfounded. The Center’s lists of eligible voters are clearly imperfect—in addition to the mailings to pets, dead people, etc., some registered voters seem to be getting the forms, which causes confusion about their registration status. And the Times-Dispatch, which was generally tough on the Center, could have pushed even harder about what specific steps, if any, the Center has taken to enhance quality control and accuracy. (It’s important to note, too, that one of the local officials raising concerns in that original July 22 story was a Democrat.)

But the failure to frame the controversy in the relevant partisan context—as, for example, The Washington Post did in a July 25 blog post—undermined the often-solid legwork that the Times-Dispatch‘s journalists did on this story.

The resistance to acknowledging the partisan nature of the feud also made it harder for the paper to reach for the bigger picture—whether that meant looking at how partisan gridlock frustrates electoral reform, as The New York Times did Wednesday, or just calling in an outside perspective to assess what the parties are up to, as the Tampa Bay Times did in its story about a similar VPC controversy in Florida. (A local political scientist said Republicans are “doing what they can to whittle down the voters most likely to support the other party through the legal process.”)

Truly standout reporting might push further: examining why so many eligible voters are unregistered, and whether the patchwork electoral system presents unnecessary difficulties (the NYT story linked above does some of this); exploring the true incidence of voter fraud (it’s rare) and the impact of voter ID laws (Nate Silver and John Sides have done some of this); even digging into whether it’s a coincidence that controversies over the Voter Participation Center erupted simultaneously in multiple states.

That work is important because, in the end, politics is more than a game. But it’s played very much like a game—which means that, when reporters want to make sense of it for readers, one of the first steps is explaining what team the players are on.

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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.