RAY SUAREZ: For more on ways of improving our nation's voting systems, we are joined by Sharon Priest, the Arkansas Secretary of State and head of a task force that proposed a set of general principles for election reform; and Congressman Jim Leach, a Republican from Iowa who has proposed a 12-member bipartisan panel to review the electoral college, among other things. Is it fair to say, Secretary Priest, that were you trying to do nationally what we just saw Floridians trying to do in their state with a task force?
SHARON PRIEST: That's right. After what happened in Florida, and Florida just was a good excuse that gave all of us, basically, a huge civics education, and gave all elections professionals a forum now for people to listen to what we've been talking about for years and years. Now, hopefully there's a forum out there. People are wanting to listen to the issues surrounding elections, and maybe put up the money to help deal with the issues.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, your task force of secretaries of state from around the country came up with what you call a reform resolution. What are the main points?
SHARON PRIEST: The main points are much of what we heard in the previous story: Making sure we do a lot of voter outreach so that people, especially first-time voters, are aware of how to use the equipment. That was a major issue and continues to be a major issue, especially in big elections, when, you know, we had a huge voter registration drive, a huge number of new voters who are not aware of how to use the equipment. And though for many of us, we think, well, this isn't rocket science, when you think of it, if you have never voted before and you are not really knowledgeable on all of the elections process, and you see something that says write-in, you're not aware that's for a write-in candidate. You're thinking perhaps that that's to confirm the person whose name that you marked. So I think voter outreach is very important. Poll worker training and recruitment is something that we've talked about as being very important. First of all, we have an aging poll worker population, a work force, and we need to aggressively start recruiting poll workers. And I think we may have to be creative in how we do that. We may have to start looking to high school seniors to help get involved in the process. And there has even been talk-- although this is not something that I would say the secretaries are supporting-- but there has even been talk about getting poll workers the same way we get jurors. So you can see that there is some stress felt around the issue of poll worker recruitment -- training poll workers so that when somebody comes to the polls on election day to vote, and perhaps doesn't find their name on the precinct list, the poll worker knows what to do with that voter, so that that voter doesn't have a bad experience, so that voter isn't turned away because their name is not on the list, and either it's verified right there, or through the National Voter Registration Act of '93, that poll worker can offer the voter a challenge ballot, which is - which is part of NBRA. So that's a very important part of it -- access to the polls: Access for the disabled, access for the elderly, and access for the minority community. We feel that that's extremely important in making sure everybody who has the right to vote has the opportunity to vote.
RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Leach, do you have to be careful when you take a federal look at this? This is one of the most locally controlled parts of American life.
REP. JIM LEACH: It surely is. In fact, in our system, we have a federal election as well as state elections, but we have devolved authority to conduct the elections to the states and the states then in general devolve authority to the localities. And so it's a second step away from the national government. But when you really think it through, we have a circumstance in this country where process is our most important product, and we have to have confidence in the integrity and the accuracy of elections, and we also have to be concerned about participation. Frankly, the mechanics, I believe, are fixable in a relatively short timeframe with some expense. But participation is really the major scandal. How do you get people confident that they're part of American democracy, that it's important to vote, and that their votes will be counted?
RAY SUAREZ: In their deliberations, many of the Secretaries of State talked about the specific fixes that were being proposed and put price tags on them just to change the voting machines and bring them up to standard in every municipality in the country was given a range of $5 billion to $9 billion. Do you think the federal government's help would be sought on that, and if it was, would you want some oversight?
REP. JIM LEACH: Well, the Secretaries of State have suggested that the federal government in effect would take full responsibility for it. I think the federal government is likely to take partial responsibility and seek some sort of matching support at the state and county level. But I'm confident that Congress can't duck this issue. I doubt if it will be fully funded in a one-year basis, but over the next four or five years, it's quite clear we're going to have to upgrade the mechanics of voting. But I would stress in the broad scheme of things, mechanics are a small part. The question is, how do you make democracy work? How do you get people to participate in primaries? How do you get them to feel that they're not being overrun by special interests? There are so many aspects to this election issue in America. And I think all are going to have to be dealt with in one way or another.
RAY SUAREZ: You have called, Secretary Priest, the standards, that you're looking for voluntary. Why voluntary?
SHARON PRIEST: Because the secretaries believe that the elections process is a states' rights issue. What --we also believe it's not a "one size fits all" solution to the problem. And I agree with Congressman Leach that funding is only one part of the problem. You've got three different areas: You've got people, you've got process, and you've got technology, and funding is just a small part. As we talked about earlier, voter education, poll worker training, accessibility to the polls, and Congressman Leach talked about something that is on everybody's mind. In fact, there are as many organizations who are looking into civic engagement as there are now looking into election reform. So the participation piece is a very difficult piece. And, clearly having informed, confident, and satisfied voters is a part of that. But I think it goes far beyond that, and I think people have become somewhat cynical with government at all levels. And I think we have to really work hard to change that attitude.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me ask you both. Are we in a moment where you have to act quickly because you've got the public's attention? Do you feel that the moment is lost if this grinds on into the four-year election cycle, Secretary Priest?
SHARON PRIEST: Well, unfortunately, Ray, I think you're probably right on that. I think the longer we go, the harder it is going to be to keep the level of interest up. But I think if we continue to talk about it and we maintain the priorities, we look at what are the priorities-- and having a good election is clearly a priority in this country now. How long it remains that priority depends on how quickly we act. But I would caution against overreacting, acting too quickly, and not having an opportunity to look at all the issues surrounding elections, pre-election activity, election- day activity, and post-election activity, and make sure that we look at the whole process so that it has some logic and some understanding for our voters.
RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Leach, do you feel - are you feeling time pressure?
REP. JIM LEACH: I think there is a time pressure when you have an election as close as this, and it's hard to visualize a closer election in an American setting -- one can afford to have a little bit of a wake-up call and the public will stay involved. But if it is repeated without correction, the only circumstance that can develop is a kind of a corrosive cynicism. And so we are really obligated to deal very forthrightly on a very timely basis with the whole basis of democracy, which is rooted in the right to vote, and it's rooted in the sense that votes matter and count. We've all been startled by statistics that as many as 1.5% of ballots for one reason or another are discounted. That's an extraordinary phenomenon that we have to address. And frankly, it's quite credible. Now we have MIT and Cal Tech working on the mechanics and doing yeoman work. I think we'll get some funding, probably not enough, but we'll get a good start in the next year or two. But then the really hard work of participation going to be key
RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Leach, Secretary Priest, thank you both.
SHARON PRIEST: Thank you, Ray.