My moment of zen was seeing Jon Stewart’s report on the Pennsylvania voter ID law and hearing him repeat the now thoroughly discredited statistic that 758,000 Pennsylvanians stand to lose their right to vote if the law takes effect.
This bogus number has been repeated endlessly by people who consider themselves journalists and ought to know better, and it drives me crazy. Because even in the brave new world of TwitterNet journalism, facts ought to matter.
The number originally came from the Pennsylvania Department of State, which compared its list of registered voters to the list of people who have Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ID’s and found there were 758,000 voters who didn’t appear to have PennDOT identification.
But even the original press release had caveats which made it clear there were a lot of false hits in the comparison. And by month’s end, it was apparent the list was completely unreliable – it included members of Philadelphia City Council, even a State Supreme Court Justice, who clearly had drivers licenses.
And of course it never took into account people who had other ID’s, like tens of thousands of college students.
But that didn’t prevent advocates, and activist journalists from throwing it around like a grenade in articles, blog posts, and cable TV rants.
I’ve been fascinated by the question of how many potential voters don’t have acceptable ID, and some people I respect on this subject say that the state’s original estimate of one percent of registered voters may not be far off.
That came from a simple comparison of the number of Pennsylvania citizens over 18 – about 9.6 million (I checked this with the census bureau) and the number of Pennsylvanians over 18 who have PennDOT ID’s, which PennDOT says is about 9.5 million. That leaves about 100,000 people, some of whom aren’t citizens and can’t vote, some of whom may be students with acceptable ID.
But even if it is only one percent of registered voters who lack ID, that’s 83,000 people. And when you compare that to the level of voter impersonation fraud – practically none, based on available evidence – you can make a strong case that the ID law is bad public policy.
In other words, critics of the law don’t need to exaggerate, and they weaken their credibility when they do.
Bad information, everywhere
I mention this partly because a few weeks back I spent some time debunking a claim of the prime sponsor of the voter ID law that it was needed because even a Pennsylvania State Representative had had his vote stolen at his own polling place.
This claim, made to me by State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe when I interviewed him for Fresh Air, turned out to be bogus. Details here.
There’s another claim on Metcalfe’s website that “the Voter Participation Center, a deep-pocketed, voter registration organization operating in Pennsylvania and several other states, has encouraged both a dog and a foreign exchange student to register to vote in Pennsylvania.”
The tiny kernel of information in the dog story comes from this amusing report about a mailing of voter registration forms in Virginia that somehow included the name of a pet and went to his owner’s house.