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Voters Encounter Problems Across the Country

November 7, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Lessons learned from recent elections supposedly had election officials prepared to handle problems at the polls this year, everything from malfunctioning voting machines to registered voters being barred from going ahead and casting their vote. Doug Chapin is director of ElectionLine.org, a nonpartisan organization that’s tracking voting problems across the country, and he joins me now.

We heard earlier in the program that one out of three voters were working with new equipment today.

DOUG CHAPIN, Director, ElectionLine.org: It’s staggering the amount of change we’ve seen in this country. The presidential election of 2000 and the resulting Help America Vote Act of 2002 unleashed, really, a tidal wave of change in the way we conduct elections around this country. And one facet of that is the degree of change we’re seeing in election equipment across the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, even with the primary season as a shakeout, were there a lot of technical problems today?

DOUG CHAPIN: There were lots of problems today: machines that didn’t start properly in Indiana; poll workers who had trouble getting them started in Indiana and Ohio; activator machines in Utah that had trouble starting up access cards; widespread problems, none of them really big problems, but still fairly widespread.

Problems casting votes

Doug Chapin
ElectionLine.org
A combination of power failures, machine breakdowns, and long lines has created a real problem in Denver that the courts are still trying to work their way out of.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, those are the kinds of problems that are in evidence before the voter even walks up to the booth to cast their vote. Were people having trouble using the equipment when they were trying to cast their vote?

DOUG CHAPIN: There were some allegations. In New Jersey, there were voters -- Republican voters -- who said that, when they walked up to the machines, that the votes were already preset for Democratic Senate candidate Robert Menendez.

And they asked the attorney general's office to come check that out. The attorney general did dispatch observers, haven't heard yet whether or not they've been able to confirm that. There have been problems throughout the day.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, with the intelligence coming in from around the country to your site, were those problems able to be fixed and people go ahead and cast their ballot, or did some places have to move to back-up systems?

DOUG CHAPIN: By and large, they were fixable. There were places that needed to go to back-up ballots, Pennsylvania among them. The biggest problem probably that we've seen today is in the state of Colorado, specifically in Denver, where Denver moved to experiment with these vote centers, where any voter in Denver County could vote at any of the vote centers in Denver County.

A combination of power failures, machine breakdowns, and long lines has created a real problem in Denver that the courts are still trying to work their way out of.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned the courts. Are there places where one side or the other has run into petition that polling places stay open later?

DOUG CHAPIN: They have, and we've already seen polling hours extended in Delaware County, Indiana, for example, where machines didn't start this morning because they were allegedly poorly programmed. The court in Denver has actually rejected the initial petition to extend polling hours, claiming that she doesn't have the authority to do so. We may see more activity on that before polls close out there.

Voters: ask for help if needed

Doug Chapin
ElectionLine.org
The best advice is ask questions. Get a poll worker to help you. The worst thing you can do is leave a polling place because you've had a problem with your vote.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with the new machines, are there new laws in force, with the kind of documentation you need, the kind of registration card you might need?

DOUG CHAPIN: There are, and that was really the other breed of problems we were watching for today. The state of Indiana has the most strict voter identification law in the nation. They require photo identification at the polls. And so we were going to be watching Indiana to see whether or not that created the kind of widespread disenfranchisement that some I.D. opponents identify.

The same problem in Arizona. There were allegations that the state's new I.D. law, which requests but does not require photo I.D., would also disenfranchise voters. So far we're not seeing those problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, if you do, I mean, the polls are still open in a lot of places in America, just about everywhere right now. If you get to your polling place and things aren't as they should be, what's the best advice you can give people?

DOUG CHAPIN: The best advice is ask questions. Get a poll worker to help you. The worst thing you can do is leave a polling place because you've had a problem with your vote.

There are people outside armed with cell phones with lawyers on speed dial, but really the only people who can help you get that vote cast are poll workers and election officials with influence inside the precinct.

RAY SUAREZ: Doug Chapin, thanks for being with us.

DOUG CHAPIN: My pleasure.

National election problem

JIM LEHRER: And once more to Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru.

Ramesh, are there more problems with voting, the process of voting, than there have ever been before in our country? Or is the suspicion greater and we're just more cognizant of it and we're being more careful about it?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think it's a little bit of both. I think that the transition from paper to electronic voting has not exactly been smooth.

But at the same time, I think there's a quicker resort to litigation than there may have been in the past, especially after 2000, when the presidency was really decided, some would say, in courtrooms. We've already had skirmishes in Tennessee over whether voting will be extended a few more hours. And I imagine we're going to see more litigation before this election's through.

JIM LEHRER: You're old enough, Mr. Shields...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I am, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: ... to put what's happening now into some kind of historical context about, through the years, what the suspicions and what the realities were about the people stealing the elections and fooling with the results one way or another. Bring us up to date.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, women's suffrage is what fouled the whole thing up, Jim. You know, all the elections...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right, right, right. OK, start a little later than that.

MARK SHIELDS: ... all the elections were great. I think the closeness of our politics has made people far more sensitive, far more aware. It's something that eludes me, though.

I can't understand in something this important why it isn't nationalized, I mean, why there isn't a single national standard, and it shouldn't, you know, vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And we do electronic scanners.

I voted today, and I went in and voted. And it was good. There were no problems with the machine. The people were very nice and helpful, even for the older folks like myself.

But as I watched out, I said to my wife, I said, "It's really strange that we don't have a receipt that we did vote, I mean, some little piece of paper." You know, we'll get it from an ATM machine. It tells you how much -- what your balance is and all the -- just to list what voter you were and the precinct, this or that, so that you had a record of it.

I mean, because I think -- there is a suspicion, there is a skepticism, and there has been enough tampering that that fuels it and keeps it alive.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think it's real, I mean, that people should be alert to this, that people really are out there trying to steal elections?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Jim, I think we had reports today of intimidation of people being told that, if they showed up to vote, that they would be arrested. I mean, things like this were going into minority communities in Colorado and elsewhere.

So, you know, I think that -- I mean, I think elections are that important that anybody who tampers in any way ought to be facing hard federal time. I really do. And, you know, I just think it's -- and there ought to be accountability for it. We don't know who the election boards are or whether they're appointed, whether they're the brother-in-law of the county commissioner, or whoever it is.

Federalizing the elections

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

What do you think about that, Ramesh? Has the time come, is the suspicion and the reality together so severe that it's time for elections to be federalized and not leave each election to what a few people in one neighborhood, or one precinct, or one county, or one state want to do?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I'm not sure that you could reach any kind of agreement on what a federal regulation of elections ought to look like. We can't reach an agreement on whether photo IDs are a necessary protection against fraud or a kind of way to suppress minority voters in this country. And as long as you have that kind of disagreement, I'm not sure what you can achieve at the national level.

JIM LEHRER: We had that in the earlier part, where a governor of a state went to vote and, because, on his driver's license, he had one address which was a different one. In other words, he had his office address on one and his home address on the other, and they wouldn't let him vote.

He had to go home and get a bill, you know, some kind of utility bill to prove that he was, in fact, the person there. I mean, but that just may have happened only in his precinct, and you don't think it could be standardized in a way that people would agree to?

RAMESH PONNURU: I'm skeptical that it could be.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's worth the public debate, Jim. I mean, I'm a big believer in the legislative process. I don't want it done by the court edict. I don't want it done by, you know, some commission or something. I think it's something that we could do.

I mean, the states could decide what hours. I mean, obviously there are states that have traditions of voting very early in the morning and closing them earlier in the evening. I mean, it isn't that. But I'm talking about the standards that have to be met for the machinery, for the counting, for the formalization of it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with what Ramesh said at the beginning about this, that the 2000 presidential election got everybody alert to the fact that what happens at a polling place is very, very important?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it did; I don't think there's any question. And once it goes to the court, it's wide open. I mean, I think history will record that 1960, you know, Richard Nixon might have had a case to seek a recount. And in the interest of national harmony...

MARK SHIELDS: ... because of perhaps the irregularities in Texas and in Illinois, I mean, that may have contributed to John Kennedy's...

JIM LEHRER: Well, that's what I wanted you to say earlier when I asked you about...

JIM LEHRER: No, no, it's over now. The time is up.

MARK SHIELDS: I always blow the big chance you give me.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right, OK. Thank you both very much.