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Ohio Military Voting, Media Framing, and Political Campaigns

Doug Mataconis has already covered the Ohio law giving military voters three extra days to vote, the Obama administration suit seeking to restore the old law which gave those three days to all voters, and the Romney campaign’s jumping on the mischaracterization bandwagon.

I didn’t see the story until this morning and what’s striking to me is that much of the news coverage misrepresents the story, too.  Specifically, they’re mostly reporting on the premise that Ohio changed the law by adding three days for military voters rather than by subtracting three days from non-military voters. That’s a rather huge distinction in framing. And, even as a very trained and skeptical reader, I didn’t catch it until seeing Doug’s second story.  (For the record, my take was that giving military members an extra three days was likely unconstitutional and appeared to be an act of manipulation of electoral law for partisan advantage even on its own merits.)

That Fox News (“Obama campaign sues Ohio over early voting law for military“) spun it that way may not surprise some of you:

In a move that puts new meaning to the term battleground, President Obama’s re-election campaign and members of some military groups are on a collision course over voting rights in the critical state of Ohio.

The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee have filed a lawsuit to block a new state law allowing men and women in uniform to vote up until the Monday right before an election, while the cutoff on early voting for the rest of the public is three days earlier.

Top Obama campaign officials told Fox News in interviews that the lawsuit in no way tries to restrict the voting rights of military members. All they are trying to do is even the playing field for all voters in Ohio by allowing early voting up until Monday for everyone, including members of the military, because they believe a two-tiered, early-voting process is unfair.

“Along with the DNC and Ohio Democratic Party, this campaign filed a lawsuit to reinstate equal, early-voting rights for all Ohioans — rights the Republican-controlled legislature arbitrarily stripped away this past year,” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, told supporters in an email.

Note that Fox ultimately hints at the correct information, but not until the fourth paragraph and after giving the wrong information three times (counting the headline) before. And readers conditioned by the headline and lede might well be forgiven for not honing in on Messina’s use of the word “reinstate.” Indeed, even if one did, it would be easy to read it as reinstating by taking away the special privilege for military members.  One has to read all the way to paragraph 11 to get the whole story:

The Obama campaign responded Saturday by saying, “Mitt Romney and his campaign have completely fabricated a claim that the Obama campaign is trying to restrict military voting in Ohio. In fact, the opposite is true. The Obama campaign filed a lawsuit to make sure every Ohioan, including military members and their families, has early voting rights over the last weekend prior to the election.”

The facts, though, are presented as Obama campaign spin rather than, well, facts. (The administration’s intent, perhaps, is a matter of spin. But the manner in which the law changed and the remedy the administration is seeking are facts.)

Whether because the right-wing press got to the story first and thereby set the frame and/or forced other outlets to scramble to get the story out or because the press is generally lazy, most of the coverage in the mainstream press was skewed as well.

CNN‘s report (“Romney campaign jabs at Obama over voting rights suit“) is not markedly different from Fox’s, except that it’s later in the cycle and includes the campaign reactions:

 Mitt Romney lashed out Saturday against President Barack Obama’s campaign and Democratic allies, who sued Ohio requesting the state’s early voting law apply equally to all voters, rather than only to military personnel and citizens who reside overseas.

Romney issued a statement calling the lawsuit an “outrage,” and claimed the Democrats’ lawsuit argues “it is unconstitutional for Ohio to allow servicemen and women extended early voting privileges during the state’s early voting period.”

But the lawsuit argues the additional three days of early voting afforded to military personnel and citizens who reside overseas should be opened to all voters. Obama’s campaign on Saturday said Romney’s criticism was “shameful” and based on a “fabricated” claim.

The lawsuit involves a series of state laws that Democrats say will lead to “disparate treatment” in access to in-person early voting, according to a court document. It was filed on July 17 by Obama’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Ohio Democratic Party against the state’s attorney general and secretary of state. The laws were passed by the Republican-led legislature and signed by the GOP governor, John Kasich.

At stake is the cutoff for pre-Election Day in-person early voting, which the state introduced after long lines and other issues plagued the state in the 2004 election. Under the new Ohio laws, registered voters who fall under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act may vote early, in person, through the day before Election Day, which is a Tuesday. But the last day for those who don’t meet those criteria to vote in person is the Friday before Election Day – giving UOCAVA-eligible voters access to the polls on three days when others may not vote.

The Hill (“Romney: Obama trying to limit military voters’ rights, calls Ohio lawsuit ‘outrage’“) perpetuates the same false impression:

 [Paragraph 1] Mitt Romney on Saturday said the Obama campaign’s lawsuit in Ohio to limit military voters to the same early voting dates as non-military voters was an “outrage.”

[...]

[Paragraph 4] Earlier this week the Obama campaign and Democratic National Committee (DNC) filed a lawsuit to block a new Ohio state law allowing men and women in uniform to vote up until the Monday right before an election, while the cutoff on early voting for the rest of the public is three days earlier.

This is rather odd, in that if one keeps reading….

[Paragraph 5] Ohio Republicans pushed through a law that shortened the state’s early-voting period. The Obama campaign had effectively used expanded early voting periods in 2008 to dramatically increase turnout with young voters and minorities, and in a number of states where the GOP controls the statehouse there has been a push to roll back those laws.

Why save that rather crucial information until well after the average reader quit reading?

ABC News (“Romney Says Obama Lawsuit Blocks Ohio Military Voters“) does something even more peculiar: treats the controversy as a He Said, She Said:

A new flap in the ongoing battle on voting equality began this week when Mitt Romney accused President Obama’s re-election committee of suing to restrict military voting rights in Ohio. And while Romney did not address the issue campaigning in Indiana today, he called the lawsuit “an outrage” in a written statement

“The brave men and women of our military make tremendous sacrifices to protect and defend our freedoms, and we should do everything we can to protect their fundamental right to vote,” it reads. “I stand with the fifteen military groups that are defending the rights of military voters.”

Republicans say a lawsuit brought by Obama for America in July seeks to eliminate additional time for in-person early voting allotted to service members in the battleground state. Democrats, on the other hand, contend the presumptive GOP nominee is deliberately trying to distort the facts.

“Mitt Romney is falsely accusing the Obama campaign of trying to restrict military voting in Ohio,” a Friday statement said. “In fact, the opposite is true: The Obama campaign filed a lawsuit to make sure every Ohioan has early voting rights, including military members and their families.”

A series of laws passed in the past year by Ohio’s Republican state legislature and Gov. John Kasich have waived the last three days of in-person early voting before Election Day for all but members of the military. Civilians now have until Friday, Nov. 2,to cast those ballots and must arrive at the booth before 6 p.m.

It’s possible, of course, that both sides are telling the truth as they know it. That is, the Romney campaign may have rushed to jump on the bandwagon based on the early reporting. But what the Ohio law changes and what the Obama lawsuit seeks to do are matters of fact, not opinion. Why is it being reported otherwise?

As of this writing, the story is not only not on the front page of NYTimes.com but doesn’t appear anywhere on the site. Ditto WashingtonPost.com.

As noted parenthetically above, I’m rather cynical about the change in Ohio law. Despite being a former soldier and son of a career soldier and having spent a good number of years overseas on military orders, I’m not sure why military personnel need extra time to get their votes in. (I’m more sympathetic to leeway on such things as postmark requirements for bulk mail coming in from overseas theaters and the like; I see those as separate issues.) And the fact that Ohio is taking away days for civilians to get their votes in rather than extending the amount of time for soldiers is a red flag, especially given that the military votes disproportionately Republican and that Obama will almost certainly be elected if he wins in Ohio.

In terms of the courts, I’d think the presumption would be for equal voting rights for all Ohio citizens.

In terms of campaign optics, Romney may well have a marginal winner here regardless of the facts. That is, “the troops” have an exalted status in our society and swing voters are unlikely to much care about the direction of the moves, caring only that Obama is fighting giving troops more time to vote than everyone else. (And that’s technically true, even though his solution is to keep the extra three days for all Ohio voters rather than stripping them from troops.)

TV reporter image via Shutterstock.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s going to be a dirty and tedious three months.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  2. It might depend on the Fox/Romney “believability rating.” If they stretch the truth too many times people will start to trust him as much as they trust promises for breakfast cereals and body sprays.

    … aside from that poor “I saw it on Fox so it must be true” core, of course.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 3

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Yes, indeed. Both campaigns have decided that the path to victory is making voters figure they’re better than that other son of a bitch.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 7

  4. Markey says:

    The comments on this story on armytimes and stripes.com is embarrassing, “Obama is taking our votes!” outnumber the “Read the story carefully, no he is not.”, sigh..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2

  5. @James Joyner:

    Where has Obama lied? I’d hate to think harsh, or even selective truth, would be equated with outright lies.

    Saying that Romney “lied on SEC documents or to the American people” was a harsh truth, which could be parsed by anyone who understood the word “or.” Saying “he said is to say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple” was a total lie.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 3

  6. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    In terms of campaign optics, Romney may well have a marginal winner here regardless of the facts. That is, “the troops” have an exalted status in our society and swing voters are unlikely to much care about the direction of the moves, caring only that Obama is fighting giving troops more time to vote than everyone else.

    That’s the main problem. Essentially, if seen under a rational light, there should be no difference between both readings.

    So the reporting is only a problem due to the (imho) somewhat pathological deference that the U.S. awards its military. Apparently there is no advantage, no matter how unconnected to military service or practical requirements, that may be withheld from someone in uniform.

    True, the press should be aware of the problem and compensate for it. But the problem is not Romney misrepresenting the case. It’s the fact that “swing voters [...] car[e] only that Obama is fighting giving troops more time to vote than everyone else.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  7. C. Clavin says:

    “…Both campaigns have decided that the path to victory is making voters figure they’re better than that other son of a bitch…”

    There’s the ol’ BOTH SIDES DO IT fetish.
    Where has Obama made a bald-faced outright lie in order to make his case?
    You’ve bent over backwards in contortions to excuse for othe BIG LIES of Romney’s…the Obama apologizes for America lie…the “You didn’t build that” lie.
    Now this.
    Perhaps you should run a discalimer with every piece describing your level of support???

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 3

  8. rudderpedals says:

    This plays into the belief that Romney is all about creating different and unequal rules for certain privileged Americans. No one wants to be in a system where they play by the rules but the other guys don’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  9. @C. Clavin:

    Yeah, well. Someone downgrades the question. I guess that’s the same to them as an answer.

    As regards truth, justice, and American presidential candidates, I’ve been thinking a bit about Romney’s relocation from Utah to Mass. He actually refiled his taxes for Utah, removing residency, and refiled his taxes for Mass, adding residency. He retroactively changed the state that he said he lived in.

    What kind of person would have the audacity to do that?

    It really boggles my mind. I think that most people would say “OK, I said I live here so I have to stick with it.” Do we really want a President who sees that kind of thing as flexible? Maybe I lived over there! Maybe if I can figure a legal angle, I lived in Montana!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  10. C. Clavin says:

    But speaking of lying…or not.
    Harry Reid is running a huge gambit…the Sunday morning shows were all over this zero taxes deal. All kinds of people who haven’t seen Romney’s taxes are accusing Reid of lying about Romney’s taxes. It’s turned out much bigger than I thought it was going to be.
    It occurs to me that if Reid is actually lying…then Romney can put out his tax returns and totally destroy Reid’s political career…send him back to Nevada in flames.
    Reid is pretty far out there on this…he has to know something about something….say what you will…he’s not dumb.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  11. C. Clavin says:

    @ JP…

    “…Do we really want a President who sees that kind of thing as flexible?”

    Well, clearly some people do.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. Latino_in_Boston says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I don’t think so.

    Reid was just reelected. He probably won’t run again. And if Romney actually releases his tax returns, no one is going to pay attention to whether or not Reid was wrong. That’s just not going to be a very interesting story in comparison to Romney’s tax returns.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  13. @C. Clavin:

    Reporting I’ve heard is that unnamed insiders in Reid’s office say that Reid thinks he has a good source, and believes him. That wouldn’t make the source necessarily right, but might explain Reid’s confidence.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  14. Davebo says:

    @James Joyner:

    Sad. Very sad.

    Doug helps with page views and I can understand that. But this?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Davebo: I’m not sure what it is you’re on about here.

    Doug wrote two posts on this siding with the Obama administration, including one titled “Mitt Romney Completely Misrepresents Obama Lawsuit Over Ohio Early Voter Law.” I’ve written a third post siding with the Obama administration’s position on this while also criticizing the media’s framing this in a way that’s unfair to the Obama administration.

    The only marginal way in which this post supports the Romney campaign is to allow that they may not have bothered to do much independent research before pouncing on an opportunity to grandstand on an issue involving “the troops” and noting that, whatever the truth of the matter, there may be some marginal political advantage in so doing.

    @john personna: @C. Clavin: I think that, in this instance at least, the Romney campaign is engaged in a venial sin rather than a mortal one. And, yes, both sides do it: “Apology tour,” “He likes firing people,” and “You didn’t build that” are all perfectly within the bounds of the American political game.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  16. @James Joyner:

    Did you just compare official Romney messages with non-affiliated liberal messages?

    Is that how you squared “both sides do it?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2

  17. @James Joyner:

    Surfing the webs, it looks like Huntsman beat Romney up over that line more than Obama.

    Romney’s opponents have already pounced on him for today’s “firing comment,” former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman remarking, “It’s clear is he likes firing people, I like creating jobs.”

    President Obama’s campaign press secretary, Ben LaBolt, simply re-tweeted the comments with his own addition, “!!!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  18. Scott says:

    @Ebenezer_Arvigenius: This is probably a comment for another thread or day but I’m getting a little concern about the exaltation of the military. This is a dangerous trend, treating the military as a special class. Hasn’t been good in the past and is not good for a democracy. BTW, I’m retired AF.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  19. ratufa says:

    How is this different from how the media usually treats things, besides the fact that the issue at hand is so easily understandable that it’s very clear who is wrong and who isn’t? For example, when you say:

    ABC News (“Romney Says Obama Lawsuit Blocks Ohio Military Voters“) does something even more peculiar: treats the controversy as a He Said, She Said:

    That “peculiar” behavior is something the media has been criticized about for years. It’s so frequent, that there are special web sites (Polifact, etc) devoted to picking up the slack. It’s so ingrained that Charlie Gibson said, during a discussion of whether the media was insufficiently critical of Administration claims during the run-up to the Iraq war:

    And it is not our job to debate them; it’s our job to ask the questions.

    It’s not hard to come up with reasons why this behavior gets rewarded: Reporters depend on access, media depends on viewers and people like stories that confirm their beliefs, accurate reporting of issues is hard, time-consuming, and will not infrequently piss people off, and so on.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  20. gVOR08 says:

    James, good post. Thank you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  21. JohnMcC says:

    @john personna: In being very very flexible about the residency of their candidate, the Repubs are not doing anything new this time. You are a keen enough observer to have noticed that Mr Cheney conveniently became a citizen of the great state of Wyoming upon being the Vice Presidential candidate with fellow Texan GWBush.

    And FWIT, the Balloon-Juice blog has an interesting post about people who have two homes (snow birds, Ohio & FL) who spend little time in Ohio but routinely vote against property tax ordinances that would benefit local schools. John Cole contrasts this with the investigation in Maine of college students and other highly mobile groups who might vote in a primary in one state then re-register at a new address and vote in a general election there. Which is of course entirely legal but apparently caused hemorrhoids to erupt in the Maine Republican party.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  22. sam says:

    @JohnMcC:

    You are a keen enough observer to have noticed that Mr Cheney conveniently became a citizen of the great state of Wyoming upon being the Vice Presidential candidate with fellow Texan GWBush.

    Actually, that’s a myth, that is, that the president and vice-presidential candidates cannot be from the same state is a myth (if that’s what you were implying). The constitution only bars electors from that state from voting for both of the candidates. See, Favorite Sons.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. mantis says:

    @James Joyner:

    @James Joyner:

    Did you just compare official Romney messages with non-affiliated liberal messages?

    Is that how you squared “both sides do it?”

    Of course it is. It always is. Anything a Republican officially does is ok as long as some liberal somewhere has done something worse.

    Both sides do it is just another way to say IOKIYAR.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: @mantis: While it’s true that those piling most heavily on the “I like to fire people” gaffe were Romney’s primary opponents, the Democratic Establishment certainly joined in. This included DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt. I’m sure there were others; I didn’t spend much time looking.

    I’m just saying that this sort of taking things out of context to score political points is SOP. It’s disengenous but within the normal course of political campaigns. I try to call all instances of it—including this one—out. But I save my outrage over bald-faced lies like Harry Reid’s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  25. mantis says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s one thing to “interpret” a candidate or advocate’s words in a way that fosters an attack on that candidate. People can phrase things in ways that encourage that, and words can be taken out of context. It’s quite another thing to blatantly lie about basic facts. Romney himself, his campaign, the RNC, and FOX News have been lying (as in they know the truth and are saying the opposite) for days about very basic facts here.

    These are indisputable facts:
    - The Republican-controlled legislature in Ohio took away three voting days from all Ohio voters except members of the military (who are in Ohio).
    - The Obama campaign filed a lawsuit to have those voting days restored for all Ohio voters.

    These are lies Romney and his supporters have told:
    - The Obama campaign filed a lawsuit to restrict military voting
    - The voting days in question are for service members deployed overseas, as opposed to those in Ohio for the election.

    Yours is a false equivalence, and your inability to see that is the problem. In that way, you are exactly like the crappy political media we have in this country that you often criticize.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  26. C. Clavin says:

    “…But I save my outrage over bald-faced lies like Harry Reid’s…”

    So your position is that no one told Reid that Romney hadn’t paid taxes…he made up this alleged Bain investor out of whole cloth???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. @James Joyner:

    False comparisons, James.

    LaBolt sent one tweet, and Wasserman-Schultz put it correctly in context.

    Also, when you say “bald-faced lies like Harry Reid’s” you actually play the game you accuse him of. You make a statement you cannot prove, for political gain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0