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Transcript:

October 17, 2008

BILL MOYERS: Many years ago one of my mentors, Arkansas Congressman Brooks Hays, used to tell of a constituent who was asked how she intended to vote on Election Day. "Oh," she replied, "I never vote. It only encourages them."

That skepticism may be justified but it's certainly not fashionable this year. Voter turn out all across the country is expected to be at record highs.

But another kind of skepticism is in order... when you vote, will your vote be counted? Since the fiasco in Florida in 2000 and the questions about Ohio in 2004, fears abound about the security of our election system.

Just this week, Common Cause and two other public interest groups issued a 50-state report card titled, "Is America Ready to Vote?" It says that vast improvements have been made in voting technologies and procedures but warns that many states still are not ready.

To help us navigate this electoral minefield, I'm joined by Mark Crispin Miller, He's a leading media studies scholar at New York University, where he's teaching a course this semester on "How to steal an election."

His new book, LOSER TAKE ALL: ELECTION FRAUD AND THE SUBVERSION OF DEMOCRACY 2000-2008, offers a twelve-step program to save democracy.

Mark Crispin Miller, welcome.

BILL MOYERS: You grew up in Chicago where, it is famously said, four out of every two votes are cast Democratic, right? And whereas we learned in 1960 you never count the votes of the deceased until you know how many need, right? So you have some experience with what can go wrong in elections. What can go wrong this election?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, it's certainly true that election fraud has a long history in this country. And it's happened on both sides. But I'm afraid that what we've seen in this decade, in this century is unprecedented. What I worry about for this upcoming election specifically is two sets of activities. One is vote suppression. Vote suppression is a fairly traditional kind of activity.

BILL MOYERS: Meaning?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, it means various dirty tricks and tactics and legal devices used to shrink the size of the electorate before Election Day. So here we're talking about, for example, interfering with registration drives or making them vulnerable to partisan challenges or passing laws requiring certain kinds of documentation at polling places. You know, stuff that harks back to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws. Caging voters, which is sending them registered letters with forms that if they don't fill them out, their names will be stricken from the voter rolls. Voter purges. There's a whole huge menu of extremely ingenious devices now being used I think with unprecedented brazenness to try to make the electorate as small as possible in advance of Election Day.

BILL MOYERS: Why would anybody want to make the turnout small?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, if the large turnout might go against your own particular interests, it makes a certain sense to try to see to it that those voters can't vote. That's one set of activities that I worry about.

BILL MOYERS: The other?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, the other is what we call election fraud. This means using the computerized voting systems which we now have in place in at least 80% of the country. Precisely because it is so technical and it's so opaque and it's all run by private companies, private companies that have close ties to the Republican Party, the use of this kind of voting apparatus is extremely worrisome and something that we should be watching very carefully.

BILL MOYERS: I talked the other day to the former lieutenant governor of Iowa who said that she thinks they have an ideal system out there because they have a two-step system where you fill out a paper ballot. And then you have it scanned so that you have an electronic check on a paper record and vice versa. It - does that help?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, I'm afraid it doesn't. I wish I could say yes. There is a big liberal consensus around the idea that optical scanners are the way to go. Basically, there's two kinds of computerized voting systems. One is the paperless type, the DRE so-called, which trades only in electronic signals. There's literally no paper ballot there. Those are the worst. You know, touch screen machines and that kind of thing. We're going to be using those on Election Day in a third of the country. That's a worry. The other kind of machine is the optical scanner, you know, which people are familiar with from having their SATs graded and so on. The problem with optical scanners is that, although they do use paper - I mean, there is paper there, but the fact is that they are just as insecure, just as easily hack-able as the paperless machines.

BILL MOYERS: This is the sort of thing that would lead to fraud, which carries very serious penalties.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, you would think so. But the fact is that the oversight on this whole system is lax to non-existent. I mean, there are essays about this in "Loser Take All". What we have in this country, for voting purposes, is a system that is nothing short of scandalous. I mean, we don't want a voting system that is so profoundly insecure, you know, when our whole democracy depends on it.

But let me make another point that I think is more important. Any kind of a system that entails secret vote counting has absolutely no place in any country that calls itself a democracy. Whether you're using a paperless machine or whether you're using computerized optical scanners to count paper ballots, in neither case is it possible for citizens from different sides to sit around a table and watch the votes be counted. You know, that may sound old fashioned for some people-

BILL MOYERS: It is old fashioned and time consuming, right?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, certainly time consuming. I think we could take a couple of days for the sake of democracy to count the votes.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think the capacity for fraud today is greater than it was, for example, in 1948 when one of my mentors, Lyndon B. Johnson, became "Landslide Lyndon" because he was elected to the Senate on the basis of 87 disputed votes in a single county in Texas? Went on to become President of the United States? I mean, is the capacity for stealing an election greater today than it was then?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Oh, the capacity for stealing an election is infinitely greater today than it was then. But it does not involve individual voters stuffing ballot boxes. That's what you might call retail fraud, you know? That's old-fashioned voter fraud of the kind that we are now being told - thunderously - is reached epidemic proportions and that ACORN is the main culprit.

BILL MOYERS: What do you make of the ACORN case? I mean, even as we are talking there's an investigation, the Department of Justice, the FBI, they started investigating ACORN. Fox News has been beating the ACORN issue over and again for the last week or so. John McCain brought it up Wednesday night in his debate with Obama, tried to tie Obama to ACORN. What do you make of the ACORN controversy?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, I make of it what it is a first-class propaganda drive. The entities you've mentioned are all participating in it - Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, John McCain, the McCain campaign, despite the inconvenient fact that John McCain gave the keynote speech at ACORN's annual conference in 2006. We won't talk about that. The fact is that what we're hearing about ACORN is, without exception, false. It is false. ACORN itself flagged the suspicious voter registration forms that caused this whole thing to begin in Las Vegas about ten days ago. It brought those forms to the attention of the secretary of state who then turned around and said, "Ah-ha, evidence that you're conspiring to commit voter fraud."

Well, filling out voter registration forms dishonestly to pick up a couple of bucks, which is what the ACORN volunteers had done, is not voter fraud. What ACORN does is it pays people to register others. So naturally there are people who will turn in funny forms because that's the incentive system, that's a way to make a couple of bucks. And that's why ACORN has been quite scrupulous over the years in going through these forms and then turning in the ones that strike them as suspicious.

BILL MOYERS: And it's done that. I mean, ACORN admits that some of these registration cards are problematic, such as the name "Mickey Mouse." "Mickey Mouse" is registered, and ACORN has pointed that out. The entire Dallas Cowboy football team was registered in Las Vegas, Nevada. So, so that part of the argument is true, right? Some people do fill out bogus registration cards.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Yeah. And ACORN turned them in. That's the point I'm making. These are infractions by grass-roots volunteers who do the wrong thing. That's not voter fraud, however. Voter fraud would be if somebody showed up to vote and said, "Hi, I'm Mickey Mouse. May I vote now?" That's not going on.

BILL MOYERS: And does that happen very often?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: It never happens. Let's just talk statistically about this, okay? As of 2007 the Department of Justice had prosecuted - are you ready for this? This number? 120 cases of voter fraud.

BILL MOYERS: Over what period?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Over, well, this is, like four years. Okay? 120 cases. And there were 82 convictions. Now, I think the republic will probably withstand that attack, right? We're talking about voter fraud that's being perpetrated in the tens. And I can tell you, moreover, that not one of those cases of fraud actually involved a person showing up to vote improperly. They were other kinds of fraud. You know, election judges breaking the law and so on.

The point I'm making to you here, Bill - and this is the most important thing I'm going to say to you tonight - is that this is a pretext being used by a party, okay, that is itself committing election fraud and vote suppression on an enormous scale. In other words, we have a party that is itself engaged in disenfranchising, actively disenfranchising millions of Americans. It is itself complaining about a group that is supposedly planning to do the same thing but that isn't doing that at all.

BILL MOYERS: What's the evidence that say the Republican Party is disenfranchising millions of people?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, first of all, all of these voter purges, the caging of voters, as I described before.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I mean, the Brennan Center report two weeks ago said perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have been improperly purged from the rolls without even knowing about it. But they didn't talk about millions.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, I, in the aggregate, it does and could easily add up to millions of voters because we're talking about a very, very broad range of devices, you know, both legal and illegal that will have a dramatic effect and that will add up. If hundreds of thousands of people are disenfranchised nationwide simply through voter purges alone, you see? That is significant. If the caging of voters results in the disenfranchisement of another 200,000, 300,000, we're talking here about numbers that definitely do add up, you see, and that make a difference, are meant to make a difference come Election Day.

BILL MOYERS: This term "caging," what's a simple understanding of that?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: It's really very simple. The Republican Party, in a particular state, will get a list of the names and addresses of Democrats and send them letters that look sort of like junk mail, you know? Often they'll have windows in the envelope, the kind of thing that people are going to be inclined to throw away. And if people don't open those envelopes and take out forms that are in them and fill them out and send them in, their names will be stricken from the voter rolls on that basis. They've also been known to send these kinds of forms to people who are overseas serving in the military. Well, they're not home to check their mail, so if they don't fill out the forms, their names are stricken from the voter roll.

BILL MOYERS: Have we made improvements since the fiasco of 2000 and the shenanigans that allegedly took place in Ohio in 2004? Are things better today, our ability to scrutinize and check this desire to influence the outcome of elections fraudulently?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, certainly more people are more aroused to try to keep an eye on what's happening. And that's a very good thing. And in this upcoming election we will have an unprecedented voter protection effort being carried out by all kinds of great organizations. That's a good thing. However, I cannot say that the situation has been improved or reformed. It's really only gotten worse because since the theft of the election in 2000, no one has been willing to talk about this issue, and what we're seeing now, I'm afraid, is the upshot of those many years of most of us turning away from this problem.

BILL MOYERS: So what's a voter to do? Here you are talking about voter suppression, intimidation, voter challenges, machines we can't trust. I mean, what do you want voters who are watching to do two weeks from next Tuesday?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: I think that voters, first of all, should ensure that there be as large a turnout as possible. The larger the turnout, the harder the theft, okay? And what I mean by this is that people themselves should not only turn out to vote, but those who have decided to vote early, should still go out on Election Day itself and go to the polls not to vote, just to be there.

BILL MOYERS: Poll watchers become poll watchers?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, they can become poll watchers if they so desire. But the point I'm making is we need to see one another out there on that day. It has to be a very large gathering of people, first of all. Second of all, I think that this should be the most vigilantly monitored election we've ever seen. Now, the 2006 election was very heavily monitored. This one promises to be off the charts in terms of vigilance of people-

BILL MOYERS: How? What can a voter do to be a monitor?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, there's an organization called "Video the Vote", VideoTheVote.org, which is providing people with free cameras. The idea is to interview people who come from the polls and say, "They wouldn't let me vote although I'm registered." Or they'll say, "I pressed the button to vote for Obama, and the light for McCain lit up." You know, this kind of thing happened in over 11 states in 2004. Thousands of people saying this kind of thing happened. We need to gather the evidence that this has happened.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, it's easy to get depressed about this, right? You're suggesting, as I have read your book, that that anger and depression be channeled into something positive as a citizen. Sounds na´ve, but that's what-

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, I'm as na´ve as you are, Bill, in this regard. Listen, for people who haven't heard the facts about what's been going on, on the election front, to suddenly encounter all the evidence of what's really been happening at every level can be staggering. Okay? So people can feel a little bit despairing about it. That's the last thing in the world I want. Indeed, you know, depression is only anger turned inward, as Freud told us. The fact is that we're talking here about a fundamental right, no, about the fundamental right. This is the right on which all our other rights depend, as Tom Paine said. Nothing is more important than this right. This is the right for which millions of our forebears have shed their blood, have died. This is what keeps us free. Only this. If we lose the right to pick our representatives and to get rid of the government when we don't like it anymore, if we don't have that right, if we don't have that power, we're as good as slaves.

BILL MOYERS: The book is LOSER TAKE ALL, 12 steps to saving U.S. democracy. Mark Crispin Miller, thanks for being with me.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Thanks, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: Both PBS and YouTube are part of the "Video the Vote" initiative that Mark talked about. You can learn more about it at our Web site, pbs.org.

On Election Day, take your camera with you when you go to vote, then submit your video, especially if you see any problems. But be careful to respect state laws about filming in or near polling places.

That's it for the JOURNAL, I'm Bill Moyers. See you next week.

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