October 21, 2014

The Leadership Conference tries hard to convince itself that Americans support the Voting Rights Act

By Joshua P. Thompson Senior Attorney

Everyone knows that pollsters can design questions that elicit the results they want. Indeed, even very subtle changes in poll questions can show that Americans either support or disapprove of any particular person or policy. That’s why reputable polling organizations take great pains to develop questions that are nonpartisan and objective. If the goal is to accurately reflect and report on public opinion, then success can only be achieved by strict adherence to fairness and objectivity.

To be sure, even reputable polling organizations are accused of skewing questions from time to time.  But many of these claims are from organizations or individuals that don’t like the results, or reflect genuine, honest mistakes by the pollsters. Rarely, are these organizations attempting to trick or mislead the public.

There are, however, any number of polling outlets that cater to organizations that want to intentionally skew polling results.  One of those organizations is Lake Research Partners. It touts itself as “experts on union and labor issues.” It is a “leading voice in the progressive movement” that has “helped unions effectively advocate” for any number of issues. So, whenever the results of a Lake Research Partners poll are being touted as demonstrative of the American people, it behooves us to take a closer look.

A recent example comes from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — a organization that touts, for example, the AFL-CIO, NEA, NAACP-LDF, and NOW as members. It recently put out a press release titled “New Voting Rights Act Polling Shows Strong Bipartisan Support Nationwide.” According to the press release 81% of the American people support the Voting Rights Act, and 69% want Congress to “restore” it. A memo accompanying the press release purports to show the actual polling numbers. It explains that even 57% of Republicans support “restoring” the Voting Rights Act.

What explains these extreme numbers? The first question posed by the Lake Research Partners asked:

As you may know, the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to stop state and local governments from passing laws or policies that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race, by prohibiting discriminatory practices. Do you favor or oppose the Voting Rights Act, or are you not sure?

The second question asked:

As you may know, recently there have been changes made to the Voting Rights Act. Previously, [certain states/states that have a history of racially discriminatory voting laws] were not allowed to make changes to voting rules without national oversight and review to ensure the changes did not discriminate. Now, these states are allowed to make changes without this oversight. Do you favor or oppose these changes to the Voting Rights Act, or are you not sure?

And the question that purports to show that Americans support “restoring” Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act asked:

There is now a proposal in Congress to pass a law that would restore the Voting Rights Act and strengthen protections for the right to vote. Do you favor or oppose the proposal, or are you not sure?

With questions worded like that, is it any surprise that the results were so heavily skewed? Even among individuals or organizations that are critical of some aspects of the Voting Rights Act, most don’t oppose the prohibitions — in Section 2 — that prohibit practices that intentionally discriminate on the basis of race. Determining that 81% of the American people polled support the Voting Rights Act in order to “stop state and local governments from passing laws … that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race” does not show that 81% support the entire Voting Rights Act. Moreover, asking Americans if they support a law that “strengthens protection for the right to vote” is hardly the same thing as asking Americans if they support restoring Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

To be clear, I am not saying that the Lake Research Partners are misreporting their polling responses. I am saying that they designed questions in order to get the responses they wanted. Additionally, I do not think that The Leadership Conference is misreporting the polling results, but they are spinning those results severely to tout their advocacy agenda.

Is there any doubt that questions worded differently, would garner significantly worded results? I have a few substitutes for the Lake Research Partners to try:

Question 1: As you may know, the Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to ensure that black Americans were not intentionally denied ballot access in southern Jim Crow states. With black registration and voting in those states now exceeding that in many northern jurisdictions, do you continue to support laws that single out the southern states for differential treatment?

Question 2: As you may know, recently there have been changes made to the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court held that southern states could not be treated differently given the mounting evidence that they were not any more discriminatory than northern states. Do you support the changes to the Voting Rights Act that requires our discrimination laws to apply to all states equally?

Question 3: There is now a proposal in Congress to pass a law that would require local municipalities to get the approval of bureaucrats in Washington before they enact any minute practice that relates to voting.  Do you support Congress’s attempt to allow Washington bureaucrats to oversee and veto the actions of state and local governments?

I’ll let you know if The Leadership Conference or the Lake Research Partners take me up on my offer. In the mean time, take their polling results with a large grain of salt.

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