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.
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.
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 is also a Republican.
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.
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.