AP Election Math: “Many Voters” = 4

According to Smart Money Daily, there are four functions of an effective headline:

  1. To grab the readers attention.
  2. To pre-screen or select your readers.
  3. Deliver a complete message.
  4. Draw a reader into the story.

Let’s take a closer look at #3:

If you realize that many more people will read your headlines than will read the complete article, the headline can be used to deliver a complete message… You can get the whole story from the headline.

Not only can an effective headline deliver a complete message. It can create the perception that the complete story is something other than it really is. That ability takes on considerable significance when you consider that Smart Money Daily is right: far more people read just the headlines than will read the complete article. Now consider this headline over an AP story about Wisconsin’s voter ID law:


Voter ID law proved insurmountable for many in Wisconsin

The “tease” headline and main headline make two factual statements: Many voters in Wisconsin were turned away from the polls in the 2016 election and the state’s Voter ID law proved insurmountable for many in Wisconsin. Yet, neither fact is substantiated in the body of the story. First, the story recycles an outdated number when saying an estimated 300,000  voters lacked the proper ID to vote in November 2016. The number comes from a 2014 Wisconsin court ruling against the photo ID law which included the 300,000 as an estimate of voters without proper ID at that time. It’s impossible to know if the estimate was accurate and, if it was, how many of those voters got the necessary ID by November 2016. Even the AP article concedes it is unknown how many people could not vote due to lack of a photo ID, despite the story’s headline.

What the story does ultimately provide is four examples of voters who were turned away from the polls due to lacking a photo ID:

  • a 66 year old African-American woman
  • a navy veteran
  • a college student
  • a woman dying of cancer

The AP story says “it wasn’t hard to find” these examples. Yet, six months after the election, those four are the only ones AP mentions in its story. If they have discovered more examples, they didn’t mention them in the article. If there were indeed “many voters” turned away, it seems unlikely AP wouldn’t have discovered more than these four a half-year after Election Day. It’s possible there are more and AP was selective in the ones they presented; each of the four stories told carries its own emotional appeal. Of course AP then could have provided the total number of cases they discovered.

That AP reports just four examples doesn’t minimize the significance of the challenges these people faced. And as Governor Scott Walker told AP: “In a society where just about everyone has some form of voter identification, we just need to make sure going forward that we provide it for free, (that) we provide easy access to documents and other things in that regard,” Walker said. “We can be more than capable of making sure that people all across the state have access to voter identification.”

AP uses the phantom “many turned away” narrative to imply, strongly, that the photo ID law delivered Wisconsin to Republican Donald Trump:

In the end, Wisconsin’s 10 Electoral College votes went to Republican Donald Trump, who defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by roughly 22,000 votes. But the battle over voter ID laws continues.

They then quote of the four people profiled:

“At the time I was thinking, ‘At least tried, so I can’t feel too bad about it,'” she said.

She felt differently when Trump won Wisconsin, her home for now as she looks for freelance work with her degree in communication design and illustration.

“When I would see people saying, ‘What’s wrong with you Wisconsin, what are you doing?’ I would feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’m part of the problem,'” (Catelin)  Tindall said….

Overall, nearly 3 million people in Wisconsin voted last November, about 91,000 fewer than in 2012. Milwaukee, a power center for Democrats, reported that 41,000 fewer people voted there than in 2012.

It is unknown if the 41,000 vote gap from 2012 in Milwaukee would have gone entirely to Democrats, but it almost certainly would not have. And fewer Democrats voting also could be the result of lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, or a combination of other factors.

It’s also seems highly unlikely that if 300,000 people statewide and 41,000 in Milwaukee didn’t vote due to the state’s voter ID law that the AP would produce only four real life examples in this story.