PolitiFact burns Bernie Sanders

PolitiFact the ideal source?“Sanders said that “in this last election in November, … 63 percent of the American people chose not to vote, … 80 percent of young people, (and) 75 percent of low-income workers chose not to vote.”

… We rate the claim Half True.”

—PolitiFact, from an April 2, 2015 fact check of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

 

Overview

PolitiFact burns Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with its grammatical nitpicking.

The Facts

On March 31, 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders gave a speech at a town hall meeting in Austin, Texas. Sanders made some statements about voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections and PolitiFact elected to fact check those statements (bold emphasis added):

Sanders told the audience:

“I beg of you do not enter that world of despair. We can win this fight. In order to win this struggle we are going to need nothing less than a political revolution, and let me tell you what I mean by ‘a political revolution.’ When, as was the case in this last election in November, when 63 percent of the American people chose not to vote, when 80 percent of young people, when 75 percent of low-income workers, chose not to vote, what we need to do is create a momentum so that 70, 80, 90 percent of the people vote. And when that happens, we win hands down.”

 

PolitiFact found minor fault with Sanders’ numbers and docked Sanders for generalizing that voters did not miss out on voting by their own choice:

Sanders was too loose with some of his numbers and his wording, but he has a point that rates of non-voting among Americans, and especially among younger and poorer Americans, are high. We rate the claim Half True.

 

We’ll look at how PolitiFact’s evaluation of Sanders stacks up.

Analyzing the Rhetoric

In evaluating PolitiFact’s work we’ll start with a review of the numbers. We find that PolitiFact chose good source material to judge Sanders’ claims.

63 percent, voting-eligible Americans

The United States Election Project estimates 35.9 percent of the voting-eligible population voted in 2014. We think Sanders’ reference to “Americans,” in context, implies he refers to voting-eligible Americans. The USEP voter participation estimate implies 64.1 percent of eligible Americans voted. Saying 65 percent would have made Sanders more accurate and avoided a minor case of false precision. People commonly round to the nearest five, so rounding 64.1 up to 65 percent could hardly draw a reasonable complaint.

Sanders’ 63 percent figure is wrong, at least by the USEP estimate, but so close that it hardly matters to his point.

80 percent, young people

Sanders says 80 percent of young people chose not to vote. PolitiFact used a study from Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University to estimate voter turnout among young people at 78.5 percent.

Pew voter turnout graph75 percent, low-income workers

PolitiFact judged that Sanders’ 75 percent figure, his estimate of the number of low-income workers who chose not to vote, had the weakest support. The Census Bureau provides estimates of turnout rates for low-income voters, but the most recent midterm election data come from 2010. Obviously, data from 2010 do not make a solid foundation in fact for statements about turnout in 2014.

PolitiFact said the Census Bureau put the turnout figure from 2010 at 34.6 percent. That implies a figure of 65 percent for nonvoters, 10 percentage points lower than Sanders’ estimate. However, the Census Bureau’s estimates notoriously overstate voter participation (see Pew Research graph to right). So Sanders’ figure probably comes closer than that to the right number.

By the numbers

By the numbers, Sanders gets one correct and one nearly correct with a slight case of false precision. A third had no supporting data save for an estimate using data from 2010.

Sanders’ third estimate may be right even though it has little firm evidence in support. PolitiFact’s statement of principles says PolitiFact places the burden on proof on the one making the claim. It follows that PolitiFact may use that reasoning to count the lack of support strongly against Sanders, even though the article does not specifically say it.

We fault Sanders primarily for mixing estimates with a number that gives a false sense of precision (63 percent). The 63 gives Sanders’ audience the impression that his other numbers are not rounded off to the nearest five.

Sanders’ underlying argument

Even with a slight fudging of the numbers, its hard to fault Sanders for his underlying argument, that low voter participation leaves much room for greater electoral success for Democrats. PolitiFact, however, found another way to fault Sanders.

Choosing not to vote?

PolitiFact, with supporting comments from one of its cited experts, faulted  Sanders for generalizing that people choose not to vote:

For Americans overall, 55 percent didn’t vote for reasons of circumstance. For young Americans, it was 56 percent, and for low-income Americans, it was 52 percent.

By contrast, the percentages of people not voting by choice were lower across the board. For Americans overall, it was 33 percent. For young Americans, it was 30 percent and for lower-income Americans it was 34 percent.

This means that Sanders went too far when he said that large majorities chose not to vote.

 

We think this argument misses Sanders’ point. We see no evidence from the context that Sanders was using “chose not to vote” to mean anything other than “did not vote.” We think Sanders would happily address reasons of choice and circumstance to increase voter turnout. We find it uncharitable to suppose otherwise.

Summary

“Sanders said that “in this last election in November, … 63 percent of the American people chose not to vote, … 80 percent of young people, (and) 75 percent of low-income workers chose not to vote.”

… We rate the claim Half True.”

PolitiFact defines its “Half True” rating as “The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.”

All of Sanders numbers were very close and his point was effectively unassailable even with much higher voter participation in 2014. We think it hard to argue that missing the voter participation numbers by a few percentage points counts as an important detail for this claim. Nor do we see how Sanders took anything out of context in a significant way.

We charge Sanders with a fallacy of false precision for using the 63 percent figure, but we emphasize that’s a minor error on his part. His numbers are close enough given the uncertainty in the estimates.

We charge PolitiFact with interpreting Sanders uncharitably with its focus on the phrase “chose not to vote.”

Uncharitable Interpretation

Afterword

Be sure to read our associated fact check of Sen. Sanders. We found a politically controversial claim in the same Sanders speech PolitiFact fact-checked, leaving us to wonder why PolitiFact did not choose a different claim to check than a curiosity about voter participation rates. PolitiFact says its fact check of Sanders was chosen by a financial donor as part of its Kickstarter promotion, so perhaps PolitiFact sold its editorial discretion in this case.

We did note that Sanders has two angles to his underlying argument. We left hanging his idea that higher voter participation leads to progressives (we note that Sanders is not a Democrat) winning elections. Doubtless there’s at least some truth to the claim, but at the same time it’s probably more complicated than that.

Clarification May 31, 2015: Our phrasing was unclear in our “The Facts” section where we showed PolitiFact’s objection to Sanders generalization about people not voting by their own volition. The old version of our statement was “generalizing that voters did not vote by their own volition.”

 

References

Jacobson, Louis. “Checking Bernie Sanders on Americans’ Low Voter-turnout Rates.” PolitiFact.com. Tampa Bay Times, 02 Apr. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

Taylor, Paul, and Mark Hugo Lopez. “Six Take-aways from the Census Bureau’s Voting Report.” Pew Research. Pew Research Center, 08 May 2013. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.

Adair, Bill, and Angie Drobnic Holan. “The Principles of PolitiFact, PunditFact and the Truth-O-Meter.” PolitiFact.com. Tampa Bay Times, 01 Nov. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

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