TOPICS > Politics

State Officials, Attorneys Prep for Possible Voting Problems

October 29, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
Loading the player...
With a rush of early voters going to the polls, state officials are preparing for a strong voter turnout and lawyers are amassing in battleground states in case problems occur. Legal experts weigh the situation.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Now Gwen Ifill takes a closer look at those potential voting problems.

GWEN IFILL: And for that look, we go to two attorneys who have been intimately involved in the process: Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a voting rights group; and election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, he served as national counsel to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004. He’s also on standby, if needed, to join a post-election McCain recount team.

So we’ll be talking about that in a moment, but I want to start with Barbara Arnwine. Under a week to go before the election. Are we ready?

BARBARA ARNWINE, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law: No. I think that, you know, states are doing the best that they can, but with a record turnout and the continued underinvestment by our states and by our federal government in election procedures, that we are not ready yet.

I wish that I could say to every voter that every registration roll is accurate, that every voting place you go to will have working machines, that you won’t have to wait long. None of that is, unfortunately, true.

So what I would like to see is that we are making reforms. I think the fact that 36 states have early voting is, in fact, a major progress and that that’s a sign that states are beginning to think about how to open up the process, more — how to be more efficient.

But we still have a long ways to go to make sure that we have greatly and well-trained poll workers, who are heroes for, you know, volunteering to do what they do for such low pay and to make sure that voters are able to be able to cast the vote and have it counted.

GWEN IFILL: Ben Ginsberg, are we ready?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG, Counsel, Bush-Cheney Presidential Campaigns: No, we’re not. I agree with Barbara about that.

It’s a system that’s built on a couple of things. Number one, it is a human system. We have, basically, volunteers, very well-intentioned people who work the polls every day, every Election Day, and that creates the natural problems that come from human error.

And, secondly, I disagree with Barbara a little bit on this. Most decisions about the types of machines and the way ballots are cast and counted are really made on the county level. And so you have a great deal of inconsistency amongst the counties in a given state, to say nothing of between the states.

Voting problems persist

Barbara Arnwine
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights
I really question why we are not like other democracies. Most Western democracies, when you turn 18, you automatically are registered. You do not have to go through this entire process of tracking down, constantly registering ... all these problems.

GWEN IFILL: So, if we say that we're not ready, let's give the viewers some understanding of where and how and why. It would be easy to imagine that, since 2000 and 2004, after everything that we went through, that some of the problems would have been identified and fixed by now.

BARBARA ARNWINE: Yes, you know, unfortunately, the Help America Vote Act, what people call HAVA, did not go far enough. I mean, it was just a little Band-Aid over a huge, gaping sore.

And what I think that we need to do is to continue with good election reform to address the problems.

The biggest problem right now is that HAVA requires that every state creates a statewide database for this election. And they have to match it against, you know, your DMV records and against the Social Security records.

Unfortunately, human error is human error, so records aren't matching. And what that's leading to is that states are not putting people on registration lists or partisans are flagging these voters and trying to, you know, challenge those voters at the polls.

These are the issues that, unfortunately, are there for us. I think that these are issues that shouldn't exist.

I really question why we are not like other democracies. Most Western democracies, when you turn 18, you automatically are registered. You do not have to go through this entire process of tracking down, constantly registering, losing your registration if you move, all these problems. You become a permanent registrant in that country.

Voter registration, access flawed

Benjamin Ginsberg
Republican Election Lawyer
What's frightening about doing recounts is that you realize just how flawed every election must be.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Ben Ginsberg this question, because there seems to be a disagreement on partisan lines about what the real problem is here, whether it's a problem that voter registration is flawed or that voter access is flawed. Which is it?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: Well, I think it's both in a lot of ways. I think that there are problems of keeping track of people in our society, because we move so much.

We're such a mobile society, far more so than really any other country, and because we do have such local elections, and it is important to have our elected officials on the local level elected by folks who live in their areas.

So you do have to have accurate registration rolls in order to have some validity to the system to allow people to have a degree of confidence in the validity of the results that come from elections.

Now, in terms of access, that's a problem that we tend to deal with mostly when we see a problem largely through a recount. And what's frightening about doing recounts is that you realize just how flawed every election must be, because once you dig down in a recount...

GWEN IFILL: You're always going to find problems.

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: ... all the problems -- all the problems with rolls and access materializes and you see it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, so how much of the problems that we're seeing are systemic, as you described, and how much of it is just people setting out to game the process? How much of it's on purpose?

BARBARA ARNWINE: Well, I mean, obviously, there's a lot of problems with that. I mean, right here in Virginia already the fliers have started, the deceptive fliers, telling people that they can vote on Wednesday.

GWEN IFILL: The day after the election.

BARBARA ARNWINE: Exactly. Those fliers are already in the tidewater area. They're already in Richmond. People are calling. They're complaining. They're confused.

And the fliers are really vicious. I mean, they look very official. They have the feel of the state. And they say, you know, to voters, that the state general assembly met and made this decision, because of the fact that the lines were going to be too long at the polls.

So it's a very, very vicious way of discouraging voters from showing up.

GWEN IFILL: Have you seen the same sort of thing?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: Sure. There are fliers. They actually affect both Democratic communities and Republican communities, so that certainly exists.

Your piece referred to ACORN and its registration of voters. That's a problem when people try and register falsely.

But the larger problem is, is that we have two sides of the same coin. Republicans talk about fraud; Democrats talk about suppression. It has really become -- and there are isolated incidents of it on both sides they can point to.

But it has also sort of seeped in to the get-out-the-vote programs that both parties use to motivate their bases. That leads to a lack of confidence in the system. And that's sort of a long-term systemic problem.

Early voting helps with access

Barbara Arnwine
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights
It's very good for people to be able to vote on a Saturday. It's very good for people to be able to vote absentee. It's very good to have these options for voting [...] It's really made a big difference in turnout and in registration.

GWEN IFILL: We just saw in Judy's piece the long lines of people lining up to vote early. One report -- one-third of voters are actually voting early this time.

Is that necessarily -- you were saying it's a good thing, but is it necessarily a good thing, if it creates potential for more confusion?

BARBARA ARNWINE: Well, you know, I think early voting now has been used by some states for, you know, several elections. And they have, you know, functioned very well.

I think that early voting takes care of many problems. I mean, if you're a mother and you have to take a child to school, and you have to be at work...

GWEN IFILL: Does it create more problems, as well?

BARBARA ARNWINE: No, I don't think so. I haven't seen any evidence of that, because think about it. If all those people were showing up for one day of voting, if you've got four-hour lines already, what kind of hour lines would you have on one day, if that was the only option?

It's very good for people to be able to vote on a Saturday. It's very good for people to be able to vote absentee. It's very good to have these options for voting. And they work so effectively. It's really made a big difference in turnout and in registration.

GWEN IFILL: Early voting, a help or a hindrance?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: Oh, I think, on balance, it's a help. I think any time you allow more people access to the voting system, that that's good.

You need to -- it does create more problems, and it prolongs the problems, in the sense that there is a longer period of time when folks may have to be standing on line. It does put more stress on the counties and the volunteers, because they have to work more days.

But on balance, increasing access to the voting booth is really what it ought to be about.

Technology fixes, legal challenges

Benjamin Ginsberg
Republican Election Lawyer
There are lots of lawyers who are out for both parties in the polling places. They are a touch over-caffeinated, especially early in the morning. There may be challenges that take place.

GWEN IFILL: Technology, is there a way for technology to solve some of the problems or anticipate some of the problems which we're facing on Election Day?

BARBARA ARNWINE: After a number of years. I mean, we're not there yet. I think, you know, Nevada has it almost right, but not all the systems do.

GWEN IFILL: What does Nevada do?

BARBARA ARNWINE: Nevada has a really nice system. If you've been watching, they actually have polling places in malls. They have polling places so accessible. And people are able to just go and vote.

And it's making a huge difference, because people are finding that it's easier to vote, you know, in these common places where you frequent anyway. But the technology is catching up a little bit, where it's able to both be electronic and print out some kind of paper ballot.

GWEN IFILL: And, Ben Ginsberg, as I mentioned at the start here, you are standing by in case you need to do a recount for the McCain campaign, as you did for the Bush campaign. Is a legal challenge inevitable no matter what happens Tuesday night?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: Oh, I don't think it necessarily is. I mean, historically you get a presidential recount about once every 126 years or so. So I think we ought not to...

GWEN IFILL: Maybe not a recount, but any other kinds of challenges?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: Oh, there will be legal challenges. As has been reported frequently, there are lots of lawyers who are out for both parties in the polling places. They are a touch over-caffeinated, especially early in the morning. There may be challenges that take place.

So I think that that has now become ingrained in the system. That's not necessarily bad, because it does provide sort of a check and balance on the charges that have now become part of the political process.

GWEN IFILL: Ben Ginsberg and Barbara Arnwine, thank you both very much.

BARBARA ARNWINE: Thank you.

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: Thanks, Gwen.

BARBARA ARNWINE: Thank you.