Another great moment in the history of journalism.
|(clipped from PolitiFact.com)|
The fact checkers:
Katie Sanders: writer, researcher
Angie Drobnic Holan: editor
Is voter fraud a problem?
That's the central and underlying issue in this fact check, which stems from a case in Florida where a schoolteacher ran afoul of the law by not properly following new legislation spearheaded by Florida's Republican-dominated legislature.
The Colbert Report produced a non-serious treatment of the issue. An ACLU spokesperson contributed in kind.
The video commits any number of distortions of the issue, but we'll focus on just one.
Simon says there are probably more shark attacks in Florida than cases of voter fraud. His statement is intended to minimize the problem of voter fraud, using the perception that few shark attacks occur in Florida to power his point. Take a guess at how many shark attacks occurred in Florida last year before encountering the stats.One of the people Colbert interviewed for his sarcastic report is Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. Florida officials claimed they needed to pass the law to prevent voter fraud, but these cases are actually pretty rare, he said."There are probably a larger number of shark attacks in Florida than there are cases of voter fraud," he said.
Simon doesn't merely rely on the potential for inaccurate perceptions about the rate of shark attack. Better than that, he says shark attacks "probably" outnumber the number of cases of voter fraud.
What is a "case" of voter fraud?
The relevant understanding of "case" in this context is an instance or occurrence. A case of mistaken identity, for example, is any instance of mistaken identity.
That understanding is not for PolitiFact, however. PolitiFact takes "cases" and interprets it, at least in the practical sense, as the number of state investigations for voter fraud. A "case" in this fact check is a "case" in the sense of a designation by a state agency.
Does that equivocal drift in definitions affect the outcome of the fact check? Almost certainly.
PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
The shark attack figures include documented instances of sharks attacking human victims. The voter fraud cases indicate the number of cases deemed legally sufficient for an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.Summing up the table PolitiFact provides, shark attacks outnumber the "cases" of voter fraud 72-49 over the past four years. For only one of those years (2011) did the number of shark attacks fall short of the number of "cases" of voter fraud.
The fallacy in PolitiFact's reasoning comes easily to light.
For most of Florida's history as part of the United States it has prohibited voting by felons. Every time a felon votes illegally, it constitutes a case of voter fraud--albeit not the phony representation of "case" settled on by the fact checkers.
Most often nothing can be done to prosecute a case of voter fraud against a felon who votes illegally even though it happens with some regularity. The Miami Herald, for example, reported the following in the wake of its investigations of the 2000 presidential election:
At least 445 Florida felons voted illegally on Nov. 7, casting another cloud over a disputed presidential election already mired in legal challenges, a Herald investigation has found.Got that? The Herald found evidence that thousands of ineligible votes were cast in just one election. But let's treat the numbers conservatively. The Herald says at least 445 felons voted illegally--fraudulently--in Florida. Add that 445 to the 49 "cases" of voter fraud listed on PolitiFact's chart and we end with a total of 494 cases of voter fraud. The total documented number of shark attacks in Florida is 637 over its entire history as recorded by the Florida Museum of Natural History.
The tainted votes -- found in a review of nearly half a million votes cast in 12 Florida counties -- provide evidence that the presidential race was influenced by thousands of ineligible voters. Nearly six million voters in Florida's 67 counties cast ballots.
Who thinks felons failed to vote illegally at least enough to make up the remaining 143 vote difference?
Obviously the number of cases of voter fraud in the relevant sense are more than enough to outpace the number of shark attacks. It is likely that ideology accounts for PolitiFact's eventual "Mostly True" ruling--not the facts.
The ACLU’s claim is true on its face, but we’re knocking it down a peg with consideration of a few things. One, the state’s count doesn’t represent a complete set of possible fraud being prosecuted in the state. Two, a "case" does not always include just one instance of fraud.Three, the stat count artificially limits the number of cases of voter fraud in Florida by ignoring a number of sources of fraudulent votes. Thus the ACLU's claim is not true on its face. In addition, the ACLU argument misses the point that Republicans try to make in supporting strengthening of voter identification laws: The law as it stands provides few tools to identify cases of voter fraud. Nobody knows the full extent of voter fraud because of that lack.
About all we really know is that the cases of voter fraud are overpoweringly likely to outnumber the documented cases of shark attack.
Too bad we can't rely on PolitiFact to make the easy determination.
Katie Sanders: F
Angie Drobnic Holan: F
This item receives the tag "journalists reporting badly."
PolitiFact could have used this fact check to educate readers about the difficulty of uncovering voter fraud. Instead, it trivialized the issue to almost the degree achieved by the Colbert Report.
A few select comments from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's 1998 report "Florida Voter Fraud Issues":
FDLE's experience in recent years, including cases predating the 1993 and 1994 " Motor Voter" changes, suggests the areas that are "ripe" for potential fraud fall primarily into these categories:• Voter Registration Fraud: — Minimal identification and citizenship proof requirements provide ample opportunity for voter registration fraud. This includes specialized "changes of address" done solely to allow a vote in a particular election, when in fact, no actual change of address has occurred.• Absentee Ballot Fraud: — The desire to facilitate the opportunity for each person to vote has resulted in increased opportunity to use absentee ballots improperly. (Once one has registered fraudulently, he or she can obtain an absentee ballot for every election thereafter if he or she wishes. The lack of "in-person, at-the-polls" accountability makes absentee ballots the "tool of choice" for those inclined to commit voter fraud.)• Illegally or Improperly "Assisting" Others To Vote Their Absentee Ballot: — Those inclined to do so can capitalize on others' access to an absentee ballot by voting their ballot for them, often with the actual voter not knowing what has occurred. This offers tremendous opportunity for vote fraud, particularly to those who have access to the ill or infirm or those who do not have the ability to resist the influence of another as they are urged to vote in a "required" manner. It also encourages those inclined to commit voter fraud to seek to utilize absentee ballots provided to those whose interest in voting is marginal or non-existent.
To re-emphasize the key issue, these vulnerabilities in the voting system remain very easy to exploit and very difficult to detect once they occur. Assuming that the number of cases deemed worthy of investigation by the Florida Department of State adequately represents the number of cases of actual voter fraud ranks as epic on the scale of folly (aka the Folly-O-Meter).
Once registered to vote, any person may request and utilize an absentee ballot without ever having to appear in person to vote. If the voter registration process does not require significant proof of citizenship, address, and identity, then those inclined to commit fraud will capitalize on the process by successfully registering those who have no right to vote, and then "facilitate" their (illegal) vote by absentee ballot.
Update April 6, 2012:
A Florida television station airs a story documenting approximately 100 non-citizens registered to vote in Florida, at least some of whom voted in past elections.
March 4, 2012: Replaced "explain" with "exploit" in the final paragraph.