Lack of Citation Allows Preemptive Media Declarations

Several news organizations in Massachusetts published articles late last night on August 9th declaring that Governor Charlie Baker had signed a bill creating automatic voter registration into law.

These groups included quotations from State officials and advocacy organizations to support this assertion, such as a statement from the Massachusetts elections chief who said they would "have systems in place to begin automatically registering voters at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth on January 1, 2020, just in time for the next Presidential Primaries."

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An ACLU statement dismayed at "national efforts to limit access to the polls" and pleased that "nearly 700,000 more eligible Massachusetts voters" will now be engaged in the democratic process was also quoted.

There's just one issue though.

When these reports were issued, there wasn't any evidence that any such bill had actually been signed into law.

Neither of these organizations cited a piece of legislation in their reports, and research shows there are quite a few bills to create automatic voter registration in Massachusetts currently pending.

We have noticed this tendency by the media to not include direct mentions of the bills or laws they discuss in the past, which is one reason we always cite legislative sources when we talk about them. They frequently only reference other organizations discussing the subject, who themselves often fail to properly cite their sources.

One of the sources cited by UPI to support their claim that 13 other states and DC have approved automatic voter registration includes Massachusetts on their list; however, the piece of legislation that group cites to support the claim, House Bill 4320, was abandoned in late June when another bill, House Bill 4667, replaced it.

House Bill 4667 was subsequently replaced by House Bill 4671, which was itself replaced by House Bill 4834 at the end of July.

As of noon today, well after these news reports were published, there was no evidence that this bill or any of its other incarnations had been signed into law.

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Its certainly possible that the Governor signed HB4834 (UPDATE: As of 5pm Eastern time this website has updated to reflect the fact that the Governor signed the law last night). However, media outlets reporting on the issue are doing so without any actual evidence to suppor their claim.

Rushing to break a story often means taking shortcuts. This usually takes the form of using hearsay to support assertions rather than backing them up with evidence. Many times, those assertions must later be walked back if they turn out not to be true.

When the people charged with disseminating truth to the masses fail to provide verifiable evidence and insist that everyone take them at their word, it shouldn't be surprising when the trust they have from large swaths of the population begins to erode.

Citing primary sources isn't difficult, and ATLAS is working to make that even easier when it comes to laws. Doing so would greatly help restore some trust that has been lost.


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