Propaganda is playing a crucial role in the fast-moving campaign to enact more onerous voter identification (ID) laws in the states. In this short blog post I want to show how the discussions of the issue of voter photo ID exhibit some of the salient features of political propaganda to obscure the real rationale for these laws: partisan political advantage.
As an example, consider the puzzling re-emergence of a sordid tale of election shenanigans from some three decades ago. The scene is a series of Democratic primary races, and the locale is Brooklyn, New York, circa the 1970s and early 1980s. In a 2008 Heritage Foundation legal memo on the case and countless other reports, op-eds, blog postings, and government testimony advocating for stricter voter ID laws, Hans von Spakovsky, the controversial former Georgia GOP county leader and one-time U.S. Justice Department official, has called this story “the best-documented case of widespread and continuing voter identity or impersonation fraud” in “living memory.” It stands as a much-cited rebuttal to the critics who reject claims of an epidemic of voter fraud as unsupported by evidence.
Von Spakovsky’s source for this story is a 1984 Brooklyn grand jury report, and his abuse of this report is striking. He takes historical events and twists them so that they point to the wrong set of villains. The grand jury investigated an egregious case of political corruption committed by politicians and election workers, but he says the case is about voter impersonation fraud. The findings and recommendations of the grand jury were sensible, but von Spakovsky distorts them to promote the call for more restrictive voter ID rules. The grand jury did not come to these conclusions.
Von Spakovsky’s Brooklyn tale plays a role in the expansive propaganda campaign promoted by Republican Party operatives to stoke the anger of the party’s rightwing base (via the code word “fraud”), and to soften up a mostly disinterested public skeptical of backward-moving restrictions on the franchise – like the requirement to show a current government-issued ID to vote. As I’ve argued elsewhere, central to this campaign is the myth of voter fraud.
Propaganda is a communications strategy that relies on specific rhetorical devices and methods of presenting information to persuade and influence the opinions of others in order to control their actions. Propagandists distort the truth through selective storytelling, logical fallacies, unwarranted extrapolation, and repetition of false conclusions, providing a basis for hidden political agendas and fear-mongering. In the contemporary discussions about voter ID, what could be more misleading than to go back 27 years to obscure events in Brooklyn documented in an almost impossible to find grand jury report? Unknowing readers could think von Spakovsky is plucking the example out of a vast trove of evidence when he’s not.