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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

And Then There Were Five …

In a spirited debate, Republican candidates variously strained the facts on President Obama’s record on trade, tangled with each other over a misleading ad about allowing felons to vote, and erred on the history of the federal income tax.

Otherwise, the five remaining GOP presidential candidates pretty much stuck to the facts as they debated Jan. 16 at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The event was sponsored by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dropped out of the race earlier in the day, endorsing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Santorum vs. Romney: Felons’ Voting Rights

In a night filled with debate about claims made by super PACs, one of the liveliest came between Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum over a claim involving voting rights for felons.

Santorum was correct on the facts while defending himself against a misleading ad run by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. The ad claimed Santorum “even voted to let convicted felons vote.” Because the ad features a background image of a man in an orange prison jumpsuit wearing an “I voted” sticker, Santorum said the clear implication is that he voted to allow felons to vote from prison.

In fact, as Santorum correctly noted, the amendment he voted for in 2002 would have allowed felons to register to vote only after they had successfully completed their probation and parole. Santorum was one of just three Republicans to vote for the amendment, which failed 63-31.

When Romney said his view is that “I don’t think people who have committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again,” Santorum replied that, “in the state of Massachusetts when you were governor, the law was that not only could violent felons vote after they exhausted their sentences, but they could vote while they were on probation and parole.” He’s right. Massachusetts is one of 13 states that allow people with felony convictions to vote upon release from prison.

When Santorum asked Romney why he didn’t try to change that law when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney said it was “something we discussed” but that the Massachusetts Legislature at the time was 85 percent Democratic.

Romney vs. Obama: No New Markets?

Romney claimed that “this president has opened up no new markets for American goods around the world in his three years,” ignoring trade deals President Obama signed in October 2011 with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

When we asked Romney’s spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, about this claim, he said the three deals we mentioned were negotiated by the Bush administration and only approved by Congress under Obama. But that, too, ignores work by the Obama administration to break a stalemate and win agreement from lawmakers on the deals. The New York Times said that the culmination of the deals “end[ed] a political standoff that has stretched across two presidencies,” calling the inking of the pacts “a rare moment of bipartisan accord” and “a victory for President Obama,” who bucked some in his own party who opposed the deals.

So it would be accurate to say the president hasn’t negotiated any new trade deals, but Romney goes too far when he denies the president any credit for opening up new markets.

Ron Paul vs. History: Income Tax

Rep. Ron Paul claimed that the United States had no income tax “up until 1913.” Not quite. Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861 to help finance the Civil War.

During the debate, moderator Bret Baier asked each candidate how high they would set the income tax rate. Paul was the only candidate to say “zero” percent, drawing huge applause, and supporting his position with a bogus history lesson.

Paul: Well, we should have the lowest tax that we ever had and up until 1913 it was zero percent. What’s so bad about that?

Yes, the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the explicit power to tax “from whatever source derived.” But Congress did impose income taxes prior to that.

Library of Congress: The origin of the income tax on individuals is generally cited as the passage of the 16th Amendment, passed by Congress on July 2, 1909, and ratified February 3, 1913; however, its history actually goes back even further. During the Civil War Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861 which included a tax on personal incomes to help pay war expenses. The tax was repealed ten years later. However, in 1894 Congress enacted a flat rate Federal income tax, which was ruled unconstitutional the following year by the U.S. Supreme Court because it was a direct tax not apportioned according to the population of each state. The 16th amendment, ratified in 1913, removed this objection by allowing the Federal government to tax the income of individuals without regard to the population of each State.

A historian at the National Archives, Cynthia Fox, wrote that Congress in 1862 imposed an income tax of 3 percent on annual incomes between $600 and $10,000 and 5 percent on income above $10,000. Taxes went up two years later. “In 1864 the rates increased and the ceiling dropped so that incomes between $600 and $5,000 were taxed at 5 percent, with a 10 percent rate on the excess over $5,000,” she wrote. The income tax continued until 1872.

— Robert Farley, Lori Robertson and Eugene Kiely