Tuesday, September 23, 2008

And More Pinsplitting

Part II of the post below

Out of nine reported incidents listed as of yesterday on the Voter Suppression Wiki:
*7 involve a left charge slant , 1 right (2), 1 unclear (6).
*2 involve left reporting slant, 3 center/left, 1 center/probably left, 2 center, 0 right.

So D's suggestion that the Wiki links do not evince a nonpartisan or bipartisan approach is actually fair. The majority of charges made came from left-of-center organizations or individuals, and media coverage came from either mainstream news sources (most of which lean left although I didn't tag them that way) or left/progressive/Democrat blogs. Recognized right-of-center sources do not appear at all among the incident report links.

With regard to the charge slant,the decided imbalance suggests that Democrats/progressives make suppression claims disproportionately compared with Republicans/conservatives. There are two possible explanations for this:
1. Democrats are the victims of voter suppression more often than are Republicans because Republicans often use voter suppression as a weapon, while Democrats do not.
2. Democrats find voter suppression claims an expedient tactic for reasons that have little to do with the accuracy of such claims and Republicans do not find such claims expedient.

Some possible explanations of media slant:
1. Left-leaning news sources are more likely to report on voter suppression because right-leaning news sources are interested in covering it up. (This fails to explain why right-leaning sources don't appear at all, however, as it would be expected that they would post rebuttals to charges of suppression at least occasionally. Certainly they would be expected to post the rare charge of suppression against Republican voters.)
2. Left-leaning news sources are more likely to report suppression because Democrats bring charges against Republicans far more often than the reverse, and they are more likely to view these accusations as credible.
3. Left-leaning sources have a vested interest in promulgating suppression stories regardless of credibility, whereas right-leaning sources do not.
4. All news sources report suppression stories; the links on this Wiki reflect the reading choices of either the site administrators, or of most submittors to the site, or both. This could signify a prejudice in favor of these sources, or merely a lack of awareness of sources reporting the opposing view.

Now for the suppression count:
*3 involve situations probably worthy of further investigation (1,4,9.)
*2 involve probable clerical errors that could be easily dealt with without investigation (2,6) [these, note, both involve Republicans shooting themselves in the foot; thus despite my own slant I'm not cutting them any slack.]
*3 either do not involve suppression or involve unverifiable allegations (3,5,8)
*1 seems to involve a haphazardly managed legitimate attempt to clean up voter rolls by a public official who hopefully understands now why he should have recused himself from that party job (7.) But as there is at least a whiff of compromise to it, let's add it to the further investigation column.

It appears to me that for every incident report that might warrant further investigation (which is not the same as saying they automatically constitute suppression) there is at least one report that probably shouldn't be there or that at least shouldn't be reported as suppression. This has the effect of creating the perception of widespread suppression even when that is not the case. I think it's noteable, by the way, that as links to stories increase, increased numbers are blog posts that offer nothing in the way of new information: just reiterated opinions and invective. 5 is a prime example of this. You could easily end up with reports backed by dozens of "sources" that don't actually add anything but the perception of referencing, just because a story is often repeated.

What procedure does the Wiki have in place for reporting corrections and false leads or for limiting submissions to the newsworthy?

I can't see how anybody referring to this site would not come away with the perception that voter suppression is either a predominantly Republican tactic or a stick used very effectively for beating Republicans. In fact, a number of the blogs linked on the site, and at least one video linked on report 5, express vehemently (and with a nice professional-looking news show set to lend that air of newsworthiness, in the case of the video) the view that "Only Republicans suppress because they can't win without disenfranchising people." (Does that mean Democrats cheat by overenfranchising? Hmmm.) I think it betrays either overwhelming naivete or overwhelming political cynicism to promote this opinion as common knowledge. If I learned anything from history, it's that no one party has a monopoly on corruption: please recall that the worst political machines of the 20th century (Nixon's excepted) were almost all firmly entrenched in the Democratic party; a few are still there.

My concern with voter suppression muckraking of the kind done at the Wiki boils down to two things: the intent of the exercise, and the eventual result of the exercise. These may or may not be mutually exclusive.

The intent of promoting fair elections through vigilance and education is an admirable one, but fairness will evaporate quickly if all are not held to the same standard. No cheating means no cheating; how you go about it doesn't matter. An intent of creating the impression that occasional pockets of corruption (when have we not had those?) render the entire system rotten is considerably less noble, and perpetuates a falsehood. It also threatens the freedom we have to choose our leaders by persuading many that their choices count for nothing. Which of these cases reflects the Voter Suppression Wiki crew? Only they can say for sure.

The best of intentions will not necessarily prevent a bad end, however. The Wiki has already posted a random accusation (5,) an article in which the data don't really support the conclusion (3,) and an article in which legitimate attempts to regulate voting are presented as suppression (8)--and that's a third of the list. These are listed alongside reports with some legitimacy as if they were equally credible and important. If this continues, the end result is likely to be an enormous list that is substantially dross being given as much weight as anything of value. An incentive will be created to score political points via spurious accusations; thus the overall quality of incident reports (and the value of the site as a legitimate research tool) will decrease. Voters who consult the site (or just catch a critical analysis-free news blurb on it) are likely to be swayed by volume rather than taking the time to actually analyze the data for themselves; thus the election will be less about issues than about which side can make the other look ugliest before the bell rings.

Finally, the creation of a widespread perception that the whole electoral system is beyond repair (which can happen with even the best of intentions if the site admins aren't extremely careful about factchecking and checking their own prejudices) can actually have a detrimental effect on voting in general and educated voting in particular. That way lies the eventual breakdown of the electoral system, not its salvation.

Muckrake if you must, guys, but muckrake honestly. Read all submissions, and be sure you understand what they really mean. Don't create muck where it didn't exist in the first place. Don't place all muck on the same level, and don't place all sources on the same level either. In both cases, some have more credibility than others. Learn to tell the difference. Categorize stories by verification status; make it absolutely clear to the readership which stories you actually endorse, and which you do not. Snopes.com accomplishes this with a simple red/yellow/green dot system; something like that might work for your site as well. Don't look to one side for all your information; if that's where all your information is coming from, assume you have a problem. Dig up the other side. Read their sources. Given the number of right-leaning news sites out there, I doubt nobody's published anything on any of your "incidents." Recruit a rightwinger or two for balance, if you haven't already got some. Some of them are quite nice.

If you're going to undertake major political reform, make sure it's necessary, and make darn sure you know what you're doing.

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