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Shaping Issues: News Media Framing of Proof of Citizenship Requirements to Register to Vote


Voter eligibility in nearly every jurisdiction in the United States is limited to US citizens age 18 or over. In 1993, federal law established that citizenship and age eligibility are “proven” by an applicant swearing under penalty of perjury that she is citizen age 18 or over. In 2004, Arizona voters approved an initiative requiring documentary proof of citizenship in order to register. Four other states passed similar laws and an additional five states instituted administrative procedures to purge suspected non-citizens from their voter rolls. There is very little evidence of non-citizens voting, and in most of the few cases uncovered, non-citizens without intent to commit fraud. In addition, there is evidence that the laws in Arizona and Kansas prevented more than 50,000 people from registering to vote because their applications lacked proof of citizenship, and that administrative efforts to remove registered non-citizens mistakenly identified US citizens for removal. Nevertheless, the few public opinion polls available show public support for proof of citizenship requirements is high.

This dissertation uses a content analysis of 181 news stories about non-citizen voting or proof of citizenship requirements to identify media frames used in news coverage of these issues. It finds that media coverage about non-citizen voting and proof of citizenship increased substantially after 2008 even though there was no increase in cases of non-citizen voting; this helped to raise visibility of the “problem.” It identifies seven frames in support of proof of citizenship and seven frames in opposition and finds that news stories analyzed were more likely to use supporting frames than opposing frames. In addition, it finds that most stories analyzed employed a “he said/she said” style of reported consisting of repeating truth-claims from advocates for and against proof of citizenship. This style allowed political elites to present their partisan frames directly to the public, usually without interrogation into the factual basis of those claims. Moreover, reporting style had a significant impact on frames presented, with stories that used a “fact-checking” style far more likely to present frames that proof of citizenship was not necessary and would disenfranchise citizens. Finally, the analysis of two examples from the stories of “valence framing” – different but logically equivalent presentations of the same information – demonstrate how media frames can influence public perception.

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