How the Washington Post Got Virginia’s Voter ID Law Wrong

Virginia provides an excellent example of how the photo ID debate has been waged in state legislatures and reported (poorly) by the media.

Opponents of voter ID laws began a campaign immediately upon the introduction of the photo ID bill in Virginia and were given a huge assist by The Washington Post, which on the eve of the law’s implementation misstated the number of Virginians without a valid, acceptable photo ID.

The bill, which requires that all voters who vote in-person provide a photo ID, was introduced during Virginia’s 2013 General Assembly Session, and was signed into law with an effective date of July 1, 2014.

The law permits the following forms of ID:

  • Virginia driver’s license
  • United States passport
  • Any photo ID issued by the Commonwealth, or one of its political subdivisions, or the United States
  • A valid student ID containing a photograph issued by any institution of higher education located in Virginia
  • A valid employee ID containing a photograph issued by an employer in the ordinary course of business

Less than seven weeks before the Nov. 2015 election, The Washington Post dropped a bombshell claiming that up to 450,000 voters in Virginia lacked proper IDs to vote.

The Virginia Department of Elections immediately issued a press release saying that the Washington Post report “incorrectly stated the number of individuals without a Virginia DMV-issued photo ID” and that the number of Virginia voters without a DMV-issued ID was 198,902.

The Department of Elections also clarified that the 198,902 number did not account for any of the other forms of photo ID permitted under the law that many voters would likely possess.

After a flurry of criticism, the Washington Post changed its story later that day:

“An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 450,000 voters lack proper identification to cast ballots in Virginia. The correct number is 200,000.”

However, that “correction” still distorted the data provided by the state, since the Washington Post stated definitively at the top of the article that 200,000 Virginia voters “lack proper identification to cast ballots in Virginia.”

The Department had made it clear that its estimate of 198,902 accounted only for those active potential voters without DMV-issued IDs. The Washington Post also failed to report data provided by the department that reduced the numbers by an additional 93,117 registrants (not subject to the ID requirement) to only 105,785 active registrants in Virginia without a DMV ID.

To read more on this issue, please see the full paper “Faulty Data Fuel Challenges to Voter ID Laws.”

Exagerated Claims

In the legislative debate for the bill, a variety of progressive groups opposed the legislation. A joint letter sent to the governor urging him to veto the bill claimed that an estimated “870,000 Virginians lack valid government-issued photo IDs.”

These exaggerated numbers were then used to argue that the law would be prohibitively expensive to implement. For example, the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis claimed that implementation would cost between $7.3 million and $21.8 million, and these numbers were later regurgitated by major Virginia newspapers, including the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.

Demos (another interest group) added to the flood of misinformation with an even more inflated number, claiming that the law would disenfranchise 1,154,000 Virginians and cost over $12.2 million to implement.

Contrary to these claims, the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget estimated the cost to implement the law and to engage in associated public outreach from FY (fiscal year) 2014 through FY fiscal year 2019 at only $853,964. That estimate was based on a nationwide review and comparison of implementation costs in other states.

The State Board of Elections projected that only 25,219 Virginians would need a free state-issued ID from FY 2014 through FY 2017, with 4,299 of those IDs issued each year. To place this estimate of 25,219 voters in context, this is just 0.4 percent of the approximately 5.4 million registered voters in Virginia in 2012.

As it turns out, the actual number through 2014 was even lower than the state officials estimated.

Available Forms of ID

Through Nov. 10, 2014, during a mid-term congressional election year, only 3,912 free IDs were requested by voters. Through May 2015, the total number of free IDs issued to voters since implementation was 4,117. Another 1,884 temporary IDs had been issued to voters who needed an interim ID in the weeks approaching an election.

One common failing of opponents is they ignore other photo ID options available to voters.

For example, one of the primary forms of federal ID—a U.S. passport—has never been accounted for in these voter list comparisons. However, over 2.4 million passports have been issued to citizens since 2010. Another 78,000 Virginia residents who were naturalized from 2010 to 2013 possess a certificate of naturalization with a photo, acceptable as an ID.

All 500,000 students enrolled in public universities and colleges in Virginia, regardless of where they are from or where they are registered to vote, have a university photo ID, which is acceptable for voting in Virginia.

Virginia is home to a number of military installations with 129,699 active-duty military members who possess photo ID cards that allow them to conduct business on military installations. Virginia also has approximately 781,388 military veterans, the majority of whom possess military retiree or veterans IDs.

Assuming that the national percentage rate of enrollment into Veterans Affairs health care holds true for Virginia, an estimated 42 percent—or 329,328—of these veterans would be enrolled and would likely have a Veteran Health Identification Card, an eligible photo ID for voting.

Another 332,600 federal and state employees in Virginia were not included in the analysis conducted by interest groups or The Washington Post. Each of these employees has a photo ID that is acceptable to cast a vote. Counties and cities across Virginia employ another 376,000 local employees with an acceptable government ID.

All in all, critics of the Virginia photo ID law fail to account for over 708,600 federal, state, and local employees, not including the hundreds of thousands of privately employed Virginians, who have been issued photo IDs that are acceptable for voting purposes.

Inflated Statistics

In case after case, critics challenging photo ID laws have used highly inflated statistics of voters who allegedly lack an acceptable form of photo ID for voting purposes.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Virginia, where critics claimed that between 870,000 and 1,154,000 otherwise eligible Virginians would be disenfranchised because they lacked an acceptable form of photo ID, yet the number of Virginians who applied to get a free ID so that they could vote in 2014 was only 3,912.

The analysis conducted by state election officials and professional budget experts in Virginia proved to be reasonable, correct, and ignored.

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Source material can be found at this site.

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