The business of politics is very often fraught with hurly-burly, i.e. noisy confusion, tumult. Facts are even more often elusive or, at a minimum, subject to multiple interpretations, or spin, and, even on occasion, to being declared “alternative.” The Commonwealth’s politisphere is no exception, and the state counts many organizations devoted to sifting, filtering, and correcting and explaining political dynamics, both the alternate and spun versions. To this end, Virginia citizens may avail themselves without charge to the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), which was founded in 1997. Its website is unequivocal with respect to its mission:
The nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project elevates public understanding of politics and government by organizing and presenting information in ways that are easily accessible and free of partisan bias. Our approach is grounded in verifiable facts drawn directly from government databases. Our integrated methods provide unique and valuable insights into decisions that impact your family and community. Our data visualizations turn complex data into easily digestible information.
A noble effort, succinct and to the point. Over recent months, VPAP has generated dozens of graphs, or visualizations, concerning aspects of political doings in the Old Dominion. Two recent visualizations caught the eyes of our editors. One, published on May 13, was headlined Lobbying was a growth industry in 2019-2020, followed by an introductory sentence that read:
Amid a change in partisan control of the General Assembly, Virginia saw a big jump in companies, trade associations and single-interest groups with registered lobbyists. (Emphasis added.)
The data in the graph tracked lobby clients and lobbyist registrations from 2014-15 to 2019-20, receiving this analysis by VPAP:
[I]n the year ending April 30, the number of clients with representation grew 12.6 percent to 1,172. That compares to an average growth rate of about 2 percent over the last decade. The number of individuals who lobbied also shot up, increasing to 1,126 from 1,004.
The first question that emerges is whether the “change in partisan control of the General Assembly” was a factor of causation for the increase…. But, are the two connected? … Mention on the same page does not mean causation. [Emphasis added.]
The first question that emerges is whether the “change in partisan control of the General Assembly” was a factor of causation for the increase. There is no dispute that the “change” is a fact nor that the lobby increase is a fact. But, are the two connected? If not, VPAP’s “verifiable facts” are indeed “easily digestible” but not necessarily connected either by fact or logic to the change in partisan control. Mention on the same page does not mean causation.
The authors of the graph state that the growth over a decade was about 2%; yet, the data span commences only in 2014-15. Assuming, for the moment, that the “change in partisan control” moved from Republican to Democratic, during the decade or in the 4-year span depicted, what is the inference if one is to be made? Lobbying growth under Republicans was unnecessary? A Democratic majority requires more lobbying? No issue is taken with the attractiveness of the visualization or with its data.
VPAP describes itself as fiercely nonpartisan. That may also be true. What seems to be at issue with this presentation is the failure of editorial vetting with respect to description and meaning. This may also be a function of the graphics editor’s becoming entranced by the data and its presentation, while losing sight of the purpose of the visualization and VPAP’s mission. But, surely, VoxFairfax, this is a mere bagatelle, an outlier. Maybe.
On May 11, VPAP cross-posted from the Virginia Board of Elections a data graph showing that in the month of April from 2008 to 2020, new voter registrations in April 2020 plummeted to 5,467 compared with the same month in prior years. The bars for preceding years are double that of the current April and, in presidential elections years, the numbers average four times the current month. To the beholder, this decline is staggering; that is, until the realization sets in that DMV offices have been closed since March and traditional field operations by grassroots and political party organizations have been all but abandoned during the pandemic.
So, what does the VPAP visualization communicate? That the 2020 elections is in jeopardy due to the April 2020 results? There is a lack of context. What were the new voter registrations in the previous months? … The visualization is dramatic and commanding. Once again, though, the absence of an editorial context to relate the data to political consequences makes the presentation meaningless.
So, what does the VPAP visualization communicate? That the 2020 elections is in jeopardy due to the April 2020 results? There is a lack of context. What were the new voter registrations in the previous months? Assuming for the sake of argument that the April 2020 results are predictive, what, in fact, do they predict? Once again, as with the lobby graphic, the visualization is dramatic and commanding. Once again, though, the absence of an editorial context to relate the data to political consequences makes the presentation meaningless. In truth, VPAP’s brief explanation simply states that “the coronavirus pandemic put a big hit on Virginia voter registration.” One wag commented, “Duh!”
The “verifiable facts” that VPAP relies upon are not in question but its propagation of them and their import appear to be taking on a life of their own. VPAP’s reputation and the reliance of others upon its work and efforts was echoed in the fact that the Virginia Mercury published an article by a well-regarded staff writer in its May 14 issue based entirely upon the visualization. The article reiterated the steep decline of new voter registrations in April 2020 using the VPAP visual. The piece covered interview material from a DMV spokesperson and from a grassroots organization noting the effects of the pandemic upon voter registration activities, but made no comment upon the effects on the 2020 election
It is important to note that VPAP, usually 5-6 days per week, publishes a news aggregation from a variety of sources with a focus upon Virginia print and broadcast media sources. In its May 14 aggregation, VPAP carried the Virginia Mercury article, including its own visualization graph! Alternative facts are unnecessary when facts are persistently repeated, presented without context or editorial content.
No bad intentions are laid at VPAP’s doorstep; just a caution to be more careful with data and vigilant that the purposes of their presentation and that of the organization are maintained, insofar as possible. Some will say that this gripe is immaterial or inconsequential. Others may call it carping. A tiny few say somebody’s got to make the call for the sake of all. Meaning matters. Presentation matters. Statistical IEDs injure all impersonally.