PR Fail: Pennsylvania Paper Hypes Fake Voter ID Claim

One of the oldest tried-and-true tactics used by political PR groups involves pitching “branded” or “paid” pieces to the editors of local papers and trying to get them printed as standard news content. The approach often worked in the past because editors were so desperate for material to fill their pages that they either overlooked the fact that they were passing op-eds off as news or they just didn’t care.

In another case of “some things never change”, we witnessed a particularly blatant example of that strategy in action today.

Lay your political affiliations aside for a moment and consider the facts of this case:

  • Over the summer, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law requiring legal, registered voters to present photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
  • In October, after conflicting rulings in lower courts, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court postponed consideration of the law until after November’s elections, allowing poll workers to ask voters for ID but forbidding them from requiring it.

Confused yet?

You’re not alone. The Supreme Court decision hasn’t stopped the ID rule’s backers from advertising it as if it were the law of the land. Voting rights advocates believe that the purpose of running outdated, inaccurate ads is to sow confusion among the electorate and discourage those who don’t have IDs from voting in November.

We can’t say for certain that this is the case; many organizations may have simply failed to update their information on the law. But last week, a very obvious attempt to confuse the issue appeared in the Mount Pleasant Journal paper under the headline “Photo ID Required for November Election”:

We don’t know how much the placement of this story had to do with the fact that the paper’s publisher, Trib Total Media, is owned by billionaire, political financier and voter ID-law enthusiast Richard Melon Scaife, but there’s simply no valid reason for this completely misleading article to appear in print more than two weeks after the highest court in the state declared the law null and void. The fact that the piece contains no byline only makes it more suspicious.

We’re sure that many political operatives in the state of Pennsylvania have legitimate reasons for supporting the now-lifeless law, but this article was very obviously a bald-faced attempt to confuse voters and discourage them from going to the polls in November—just like the ads that read “SHOW IT” above a tiny “photo ID not actually mandatory” qualifier.

If a PR firm pulled a similar stunt, it would lose most if not all of its credibility. Unfortunately, we can’t see anything like that happening in this case.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.