Counting Every Vote
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SPENCER MICHELS: According to a Cal Tech/MIT study, an estimated four to six million votes were lost in the 2000 presidential election. While the specter of hanging chads, improperly registered voters and street demonstrations over recounts persist, various efforts are underway nationwide this time to ensure that all the votes are counted. But correcting those problems and new ones won’t be easy. In 2002, the president signed the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, designed to provide funds to replace punch card voting systems and to assist states in administering federal elections. But even with HAVA, problems new and old remain. DeForest Soaries is chairman of the new commission charged with overseeing election procedures.
DE FOREST B. SOARIES, JR.: It’s shocking to many people that we really don’t have a national voting system. As a consequence of that decentralized, state-based approach, there’s information we just don’t have. We’re flying without instruments.
SPENCER MICHELS: Without uniform national rules, election procedures differ in each of the states. For example, some people who think they are eligible to vote may turn up at a polling place only to find their names not on the list for a variety of reasons.
The new law requires that such voters be offered provisional ballots that will be examined later to see if they should be counted. But different states are interpreting the law differently. Lawsuits have been filed in five battleground states, aimed at preventing officials from throwing out otherwise valid ballots cast in the wrong polling place.
In Florida, where early voting began yesterday, the state Supreme Court ruled that voters in the wrong precinct should not have their votes counted, rejecting a labor union suit. But in Ohio, Democrats recently won a victory when a federal judge agreed that provisional ballots had to count as long as they were cast in the same county. Republican secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell, featured here in a television ad, has filed an appeal to reverse the decision. The election will work, he says, if the public knows how to vote properly.
AD: Over five million voters in 68 counties vote using punch cards.
SPENCER MICHELS: That’s 70 percent of Ohio’s voters who will be using punch cards, which became famous for creating hanging chads in Florida. An estimated 30 million voters nationwide will use them as well, despite the fact that the federal Voting Act provided $3.9 billion for new equipment.
Many jurisdictions used the funds to buy computer-based touch screen machines which could be used by 45 million voters this year. But allegations persist that they can be programmed to rig elections, that they can malfunction and lose ballots, and that power outages can wreak havoc with them. Optical scan machines, where a voter uses a pen to mark a ballot which is then scanned and counted by a computer, will be used by an estimated 55 million Americans; some experts say errors can occur in tabulation.
In order to avoid machine problems and be sure their supporters vote, both parties have encouraged voters to vote early by absentee ballot. One-in-four Americans is expected to vote absentee, but that creates another problem. Some election officials say party operatives can and have used coercive tactics and even fraud to manipulate this kind of voting. Another problem: Arranging for a fair, timely and accurate vote for the 500,000 members of the armed services and more than one million civilians living overseas.
The Pentagon’s experiment using the Internet for voting was scaled down because of ballot security concerns. And states that are mailing ballots overseas are struggling because legal challenges to Ralph Nader’s candidacy have delayed printing.
The partisan zeal in some voter registration drives has already led to charges both of fraud and of disenfranchisement. In Las Vegas, Nevada, voter registration workers employed by a group financed by the Republican National Committee say that administrators told them to throw out Democratic registration forms, which would be illegal. Eric Russell confronted his supervisor.
ERIC RUSSELL, Former Employee, Voters Outreach: We caught her taking the democrats out of my pile. And she grabbed the Democrats, she handed them to her assistant, and he ripped them up right in front of us and threw them in the garbage. So I grabbed some out of the garbage, and she tells the guy, her assistant, “Get those from him.”
EARLENE FORSYTHE, Nevada Republican Party: The Republican National Party would never intentionally hire any staff people to come into our state to intentionally do voter fraud.
SPENCER MICHELS: An investigation is under way. Meanwhile, active registration drives by both parties have led to a record number of people eligible to vote this year, which could overwhelm some voting systems.
GWEN IFILL: So could all these moving parts combine to produce another chaotic election this year? For a closer look, we turn to: Michael Alvarez, the co-director of the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Project– the project has evaluated the reliability of voting systems; and Doug Chapin, the director of electionline.org, a non-partisan, non-advocacy Web site that analyzes election reform efforts around the country.
Doug Chapin, are we ready for this election?
DOUG CHAPIN: I think we are. There’s been an awful lot of change in the last four years around the country. We have spotted some potential trouble spots, whether it’s voting technology, provisional ballots, some of the voter identification provisions. But the men and women who run America’s elections are working very hard to make sure that voters who go to the polls on Election Day have their votes cast, have them counted as cast.
GWEN IFILL: What do you think, Michael Alvarez?
MICHAEL ALVAREZ: I think Doug is right. I think we’re going to see a lot of problems throughout the country on Election Day. But I do think that in many cases our election officials, and I think even to some extent the public is aware of these kinds of problems, and are expecting them and hopefully will deal with them appropriately on Nov. 2.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Alvarez, Spencer Michels just laid out a lot of the potentials for glitches on Election Day. And I want to have you walk us through them one by one and give us a sense based on what your studies have shown about whether there will be a big problem. First one, provisional ballots.
MICHAEL ALVAREZ: Well, provisional balloting is a relatively new thing in about half the states in the country. That I think is going to be the most significant problem that we see on Nov. 2. As your setup piece pointed out, there are many different ways throughout the country in which provisional balloting is now being implemented. Some places voters who show up in the wrong precinct but who aren’t on the voting list and cast a provisional ballot, their vote will be counted. In other states –.
GWEN IFILL: I just want to be clear for everyone who doesn’t understand what a provisional ballot is; is when you show up and you can’t vote right then for whatever reason, they give you another ballot that you can cast but then they’ll count it later.
MICHAEL ALVAREZ: Absolutely, I’m sorry, yeah, it’s also called fail safe voting. It’s a mechanism that just helps people vote when they’re not on the voting list or there is some other problem. It also helps polling place workers and election officials, because it helps keep down lines in polling places and minimize problems in precincts.
GWEN IFILL: Doug Chapin, which states are most vulnerable to the problems arising from provisional balloting? We saw a court decision today in Michigan involving it for instance.
DOUG CHAPIN: And what’s been striking about the court decisions around the country regarding provisional voting is that really no two of them are the same. As the piece indicated, the Florida Supreme Court upheld that state’s law, invalidating provisional ballots that are cast in the wrong precinct; whereas Ohio says that anything cast in the proper county must be counted.
The state of Missouri, another battleground that people are watching, says that the state may not count votes that are cast in the wrong precinct only if poll workers direct voters to the proper precinct; so part of the problem is not just the difference between states, but the fact that the rules on provisional balloting are so fluid in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
GWEN IFILL: Well, speaking of fluid, I’m going to ask you to tackle the second big question here, which is the lack centralized voting I think we all learned in great detail in 2000 that counties control so many of these voting apparatus, not the state. But that we thought that was supposed to be fixed sometime between now and then; most states still don’t have one single centralized voting — voter roll.
DOUG CHAPIN: That’s correct. When we have observers from either around the country or around the world ask about the American system of elections, we always tell them that there isn’t one, that there really are 50 state systems and even within most states there are a number of local systems.
That was an item of great interest after the 2000 election: Should we have a national election system? And after the various task forces studied the issue, the decision was generally to leave the responsibility and authority for elections in the hands of state and local election officials, and that tension between state and local election officials is a feature of election administration which will be present this year and probably in years to come.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Alvarez, is that really a big problem or is that something that seems like it could be a big problem? Are there people who can register in three different counties and still be able to vote in three different counties if they wanted to?
MICHAEL ALVAREZ: Well, it’s a complicated issue. And I think one of the things we’re seeing is the general transition away from local control toward state control. One of the things that’s going on behind the scenes right now is the development of statewide voter registration databases. Only a handful of states will have those in this election and there is actually some concern in some states about how well they’re going to work.
But we’re seeing some states moving towards centralized voting systems, in particular the state of Georgia, which according to a report that was done by my colleague, Charles Stewart from MIT, has actually pulled off quite a feat, by greatly improving the performance of their voting systems from 1998 to 2002 with their centralized voting system.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about new registrations, Doug Chapin. There have been — we’ve all heard the stories of the millions of new people on the rolls, but in places for instance, I saw a story today in Colorado there are 55,000 duplicate names, which means in some counties, in 20 counties there were more people registered to vote than who actually were eligible to vote. So how do you tackle that?
DOUG CHAPIN: That brings up several interesting points. First of all we’re going to see a lot more stories like this in the weeks to come before Election Day. It’s important to remember that registration just closed in many states, and many local offices are literally buried under piles and piles of registration applications.
The trick in sorting out the wheat from the chaff in these applications is an important one, and with pretty much everything else set on the run up to Election Day, the only thing that the parties have to worry about, and fight about, is who’s on the list and who’s not on the list. So these kind of stories will likely continue in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Alvarez, is this rush of new registrations, does that make the process ripe for fraud?
MICHAEL ALVAREZ: Well, it certainly opens the door for fraud. And it certainly opens the door for lots of glitches on Election Day. You know, there are lots of people who are trying to register to vote. And it’s not clear how many of those names are actually going to make it on the rolls, we hope they all do, but there certainly are going to be mistakes and glitches that are going to keep their names probably from appearing on Election Day.
There’s also a lot of allegations as you just talked about regarding fraud in voter registrations. We’re just going to have to wait and see, I think, come Election Day, and afterwards the extent to which those concerns have legitimacy.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, Doug Chapin, let’s talk about the equipment. We all became – once again — very familiar four years ago with the infamous punch card ballots, and as we just heard 70 percent of the ballots of the voting machines in Ohio are still like that. So in some places, however, they’ve rolled out these new electronic touch screen voting. Is that the solution?
DOUG CHAPIN: Again, it depends on the locality. Ohio is actually an interesting story. Ohio made the commitment to move to the newer touch screen machines, and then the state was caught up in the nationwide debate over the security of such machines.
And Ohio actually made the decision that they would prefer to wait in most counties until touch screen or direct recording electronic machines could provide a voter-verified paper trail before they would commit to using those machines in Ohio. So punch card machines in Ohio are actually sort of a backup system to the system which they prefer, which is a touch screen system with the voter-verified paper trail.
GWEN IFILL: And when you say voter-verified paper trail, you mean that you can actually have some way of recounting on paper if for some reason from there’s a power outage or something?
DOUG CHAPIN: Something like that. The way it works — and the state of Nevada will use these in 2004 — usually when you vote on a touch screen machine, it’s literally paperless, a direct recording electronic machine implies that the vote is recorded electronically in the machine.
What a voter-verified paper trail does or a contemporaneous paper record is give the voter a real-time paper record of what the vote on that machine is. And then if there are problems after the election or right at that time, you can compare the machine to the paper. And that’s engendered quite a bit of controversy across the country.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Alvarez, lots of discussion about the potential for voter intimidation at the polls, there are a lot of especially Democratic leaning groups of lawyers who seem to have taken up residence in ten different states, especially in Florida and Ohio. Do you have any sense of whether that’s something that might be a problem this year?
MICHAEL ALVAREZ: Well, I think it’s always a potential problem, especially in a closely-contested, hotly-fought election like this one is turning out to be. In these battleground states, we’re hearing reports of, you know, hundreds of thousands of people who are newly registered.
We’re going to see lots of people turning up to vote for the first time. And there probably will be situations occurring at poll sites in these battleground states, which either are malicious in intent, to try and keep people from voting, or which are just going to be the result of simple accidents and just unintended glitches that again unfortunately are going to lead many people to having problems casting their ballots.
GWEN IFILL: Doug Chapin, you put out a report today on this issue and parts of it was advice to people on how to protect their franchise. Give us what — the thumbnail sketch of how one protects one’s own vote.
DOUG CHAPIN: Really the best way is to be educated about the process: Know how to use the machine in your jurisdiction, don’t be afraid to ask questions if something doesn’t work the way you expect; double check that you are in the right precinct on Election Day. Many states have either toll free numbers or Internet Web sites where you can verify.
You can even verify that you are indeed registered to vote, just like you can verify an airline ticket, you can usually verify your voter registration. Make sure you are registered; know you’re in the right place, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if things don’t work the way you think they should.
GWEN IFILL: Anything you would add to that, Mr. Alvarez?
MICHAEL ALVAREZ: It’s just a lot common sense at this point, and I think the most important thing that voters can do is stop and check their ballot before they stick it in the box or before their vote is cast. And if you see that you made some mistakes, ask for a new one. It’s just a very simple solution that we think can minimize a lot of the lost votes on Election Day.
GWEN IFILL: Doug Chapin, in this report today you have laid out all of the — state by state what all the potential challenges are. What are the chances based on all the studies that you’ve done, I’m going to ask you this the same question, Mr. Alvarez, what are the chance there’s will be another flawed election in two weeks?
DOUG CHAPIN: I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll get through Election Day 2004 without some kind of controversy; whether or not it rises to the level of Florida 2000 will depend in large part on how close individual states are.
But the number of people around the country who are scrutinizing the process, poll watchers, lawyers, candidates, the media, mean that there really is no longer any room under the radar for election problems. So the likelihood that somebody will be unhappy about something they encounter on Election Day is pretty good. Whether or not it rises to the level of a Florida 2000 remains to be seen.
GWEN IFILL: What are the states to watch?
DOUG CHAPIN: The three states where my colleagues at Election Line will be going are Florida, Missouri and Ohio. All states that are expected to be close, all states that have had change in controversy, all states worth watching as a result.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Alvarez, are you any more optimistic about what’s going to happen on Election Day?
MICHAEL ALVAREZ: Oh no, there certainly will be problems, there’s no doubt about it; and given the amount of scrutiny that we have on the process, which I actually think is a good thing, you know, we will know a lot more about these problems on Nov. 2, and again I think the most important thing we can do is focus on producing real solutions to those problems after Election Day.
I think Doug has identified, you know, the right set of states to watch. You know, Florida has got questions about provisional balloting and touch screens, Ohio has got this massive use of punch card ballots. Pennsylvania has questions over the use of its statewide voter registration file. And there are other battleground states like New Mexico where they’re using electronic voting machines, which again raise the same sorts of questions that we were talking about earlier. So it’s not going to be Florida, but it will be somewhere else.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we will be watching it all. Thank you both, gentlemen.
MICHAEL ALVAREZ: Thank you.