‘Four Pinocchios’ for Washington Post on Photo ID

We live in the age of the fact checkers. There’s PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and of course the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker.” But when the media itself gets it wrong, who will fact check the fact checkers?

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that over 450,000 voters lacked proper identification to cast ballots in Virginia. That’s a shocking number—so let’s take a look at it, Fact Checker style.

About 450,000 voters in Virginia may lack the proper identification needed to cast a ballot in the November midterm elections, the Virginia State Board of Elections said Thursday.

—The Washington Post, September 25, 2014

The Facts

Right off the bat, the Washington Post has a problem: the Department of Elections never said that. Instead, the documentation they provided to the Post showed a much lower number: under 200,000.

Eventually, after the Department itself called them on the numbers, the Post issued a correction. But that’s only scratching the surface of this bad reporting, because the number they trumpeted has very little to do with who does or doesn’t have ID.

The Department of Elections provided a “filtered” count to the Washington Post, which that august newspaper evidently concluded wasn’t newsworthy enough to include in an article that gave space to three critics of Photo ID. The Department’s filtered count isn’t perfect, but it’s a best high-bound estimate of individuals who might actually vote and don’t already have a known alternative ID.

The filtered count excludes military, overseas, and federal-only voters—we already know that they have photo IDs, whether or not they have a Virginia driver’s license—and then limits the total pool to voters whose last activity (e.g., voter registration, voting) took place during or after the last presidential election. With the filter applied, we’re looking at 93,117 voters, compared to the 457,931 originally reported by the Washington Post.

And even that doesn’t tell the full story. Midterm election turnout is a lot lower than presidential turnout (compare 71.8% turnout in 2012 vs. 44.0% turnout in 2010), which cuts into the number even further.