July 31, 2001
A commission, led by Presidents Carter and Ford, recommends making election day a national holiday, among other reforms.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on the Commission's recommendations, we're joined by two members, former Republican Senator Slade Gorton from Washington State, and Christopher Edley, former special counsel to President Clinton. He is a professor at Harvard Law School.
Welcome to you both. What was the biggest problem you were trying to fix here?
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: I think there was wide agreement that three things went wrong in Florida. First, people who claimed the right to vote were turned away at the polls. Second, at least some of the voting machines simply didn't work to register the actual votes of people who went to the polls. And third, after the election was over, the recounts were standardless, deadlines were missed, deadlines were extended. And we have recommendations that deal with all three of them. I think our recommendations will take care of the first completely, as President Carter said.
If you feel that you were entitled to vote, you're going to get to vote and your eligibility will be determined afterwards. I don't think any of us feel that we can perfect voting machines, but we can certainly cut way, way back, you know, on the number of unregistered votes. And finally, by setting standards and deadlines after the election is over that are objective, I think we would avoid the kind of situation we faced in Florida for more than a month.
MARGARET WARNER: And your commission found that these problems were definitely not confined to Florida.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Absolutely not. I think the statement by the Georgia Secretary of State to the Commission was instructive. She basically said there but for the grace of God go I. If anybody had focused on Georgia in a tight election the way they focused on Florida, the problems might have seemed even worse. We weren't fighting the battle of Florida, we were looking at the problems, the challenges in the nation as a whole. I think one of the more surprising things that we're recommending relates to the machinery because I think it's commonly the impression that just get rid of the punch card machines.
MARGARET WARNER: And many of these other studies have really zeroed in on that.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Right. But what we are saying -- and it is unanimous -- is not only is that not the most important problem but that's the wrong solution. There are jurisdictions around the country that use punch cards very effectively, produce ballot spoilage rates of a half percent or less and there are places where it would be tough to get rid of it. Moreover, we feel very strongly that if jurisdictions rush and spend the money to invest in say optical scanning equipment --
MARGARET WARNER: That's the one where you fill in the dots.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: You fill in the dots. They're buying a technology that is really not the best for people with disabilities, for people who are blind, for people with limited English proficiency. And we don't want folks to get rid of the punch cards and lock themselves into a technology.
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: I think the key that I don't believe any other group came up with, instead of saying here's the right technology, we say here's the right result, here's the right result. You come up with a technology that meets these goals, not just in 50 states but in everyone of the thousands of election jurisdictions across the country. And our federal, the new federal agency will come up with tests through the National Institute of Standards to determine which kinds of machines and which brands of machines will meet these requirements.
|Expecting some errors|
MARGARET WARNER: But the error rate that you all recommended as being allowable was 2 percent.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: But --
MARGARET WARNER: Isn't that a little high?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Well, it's actually reasonably aggressive for the next election cycle, which is what we recommend. Remember that that 2 percent spoilage rate includes both under counts and over counts and under votes and over votes and the under votes, the academic estimates are that roughly .75, three quarters of a percent of all ballots include an under vote intended by the voter. They didn't want to vote for President.
MARGARET WARNER: And let's just remind people -- the under vote is
when no vote apparently appears for a particular.
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: The over vote is when you vote for two.
MARGARET WARNER: Two. You're saying that maybe three quarters of a percent is actually intended by the voters.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: That's right. So when you net it out, we're really talking about one 1 ¼ percent errors or ballot spoilage that is either related to the machinery or to voter confusion. Now I think the point to emphasize here is that there are some counties in the country that are already meeting that standard but there are a great many that aren't. And our emphasis because we believe that the quality of the infrastructure of democracy needs to be the same in every community, regardless of wealth, regardless of color, regardless of class, we don't want situations like we've seen in Florida where you have some precincts with ballot spoilage rates of half a percent or less and in the same county other precincts with spoilage rates of 20 percent. We're saying 2 percent across the board ought to be a goal and then people can think about the right mix of investments, of voter education, of poll worker training that will achieve that goal and hopefully reduce it in the long run.
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: Most of us were shocked, I think initially, at something like 2 percent. But when we discovered that there were counties and communities that, Cook County, Illinois over 6 percent, you know, a huge county -- some counties 15 or 20 percent -- when you start from that position, 2 percent in a few years is an extremely ambitious goal. When it's reached, then I think we will try to lower it still more.
|More state control|
MARGARET WARNER: There's been some criticism on Capitol Hill from some quarters that you gave states more authority here. For instance, they're supposed to set up statewide voter registration and so on. But you're not suggesting that Congress require the states to do anything. Explain why you think the states are going to follow these without that and why didn't you.
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: This is the only area on which Chris and I have any real difference. We didn't give states more authority. They have full authority at the present time. Now, we set out a wide range of recommendations for the states, and there would be three ways of dealing with them. They could have simply been recommendations to the states -- you know, no federal action at all. That's one extreme. The other extreme is they could all have been mandates. The state must do them because the Constitution allows Congress to impose these conditions, at least on federal elections. The middle ground was we recommend them to the states and we give the states a reward, an incentive for doing so, the federal money on a matching basis.
My own feeling is that the great bulk of the states would follow these where we're giving them no incentives of all because of the nature of last year's election. Chris has a little bit less faith in the states and more faith in Congress and a federal system. So there is that difference. But I think both of us want to unite on the proposition that that difference is much less important than what we agreed upon, and what we agreed on would greatly improve the administration and the fairness of the election system in America.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: I think one of the things that's impressive about this work is that we managed to bridge ideological differences, ideological distances that are rarely bridged. And I don't want anybody to be under the mistaken impression that the fact that you get such divergent political positions in agreement means that there's not a lot of meat and some bold ideas in this report because there are. On this specific issue of conditionality versus federal standards and requirements, I do have some disagreements. I think there's simply a risk.
If you use the carrot, is it going to be enticing enough to get states to do it? Will the appropriations really be there to produce the incentives for the states and so forth? But, beyond that, I think at least to me it's a many symbolic issue. So many of these issues are so fundamental and the rights are so important that almost as a moral statement it's important to say that this is required, that this is a baseline in the quality of democracy to which every citizen is entitled.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you now about a specific, I almost got the cart ahead of the horse there. One of the things you said today, Chris Edley, that you thought the two most important were some kind of statewide registration-- and I take your point, Senator, that the states have this authority. The fact is that many of them don't exercise it, precincts and counties do all this registration - but that and the provisional voting that President Carter described were the two keys ones. How would it really change things, especially the state-wide registration?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Well, if you think about Florida, for example, the problem of people showing up at the precinct and being turned away because the poll worker couldn't find their name on a list would be gone, would be absolutely gone. Moreover, with a statewide system and with statewide provisional balloting, which we are recommending and which is beyond what Florida has done in its reforms, you could walk into a precinct any place in the state and be allowed to vote at least provisionally, at least for statewide offices for President, for Governor, for Senator, et cetera.
MARGARET WARNER: Because the election workers would have a computerized completely networked list.
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: It goes beyond that. They would have a computerized printout.
MARGARET WARNER: They wouldn't be sitting there going through their papers.
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: Fewer people would be turned down at all. But no system is going to be perfect. Some people would come in and we would be told you aren't registered here. Even in that case, they would be allowed to vote, to fill out a ballot, put it in an envelope with their name on it. After the election was over, they would be checked against the statewide registration lists. And if, in fact, they were entitled to vote, their vote would be counted. California does that already. My state of Washington does that already. I think roughly two-thirds of ours turned out to be properly registered.
But, as Chris has said, not only would this be true in your own precinct, but you could go anywhere in the state, if you were away from home. Now, under those circumstances your vote would only be counted for President and for the statewide offices for the races you were actually entitled to vote for. So in this case we can cure completely 100 percent that justified outrage of a person who says I'm registered to vote and the election officer says, sorry, we don't have your name on the list. We're not going to let you do it.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Now, if you combine that with the pressure to improve the quality of the infrastructure, this 2 percent or better, these benchmarks, so that poor neighborhoods and affluent neighborhoods still have the same quality of voting infrastructure, that's a huge advance. It's an absolutely huge advance. I'm very encouraged about it. We're optimistic that Congress will move in this direction.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's touch briefly on two other points. You had so many that we can get to them all. But making the election day a national holiday, making it perhaps jibe with Veterans Day -- why do you think that's a good idea?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Go ahead, Slade.
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: Not because we think that more people would necessarily vote. That has not shown to be the case -- but for two reasons: More places would be available for voting places. Schools are increasingly reluctant to allow outsiders in during school days, for example. And secondly, far more people would be available to be election judges, to volunteer for that work.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Poll workers. Over a million people are needed on election day around the country. The availability of schools is critically important because you want the accessibility for people with disabilities. And finding polling places that will meet that standard is increasingly difficult.
MARGARET WARNER: And another one was asking the networks for a voluntary embargo on when they would report projections, which was to wait until all the polls closed in the continental U.S. They've been asked to do this many times and have refused. Why would they agree?
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: You start with that one, Chris.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Well, obviously there's an aspiration that they'll step up to the plate and be good citizens because it's critically important particularly in the West where Slade is from. It does do damage, we are absolutely convinced it does do damage to the democratic process.
MARGARET WARNER: It depresses the vote.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: It depresses the vote, and it makes people feel as though their vote somehow counts less. And, remember, it's not just about the President. We need people going to the polls in California, in Oregon and Washington State for all the races and all the ballot propositions down the line. Democracy needs to work by having as many people possible participate. Now, if the networks won't do it voluntarily, a strong consensus, not unanimity but a very strong consensus on the commission felt federal legislation would be appropriate. It could be directed at the state and local officials so that they would not release formal election results until all the polls in the lower 48 were closed, but there are ways that we think we could act on it legislatively.
MARGARET WARNER: So you think there are ways to act on it that wouldn't run into First Amendment problems?
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: Well, clearly we could establish uniform poll closing times all across the country. There would be no constitutional challenge to that. That would be very difficult on these election workers in the East. It means they stay up until 11:00 and keep things open. There might possibly be a challenge to the right of election workers to give out their totals, but probably you can govern these government officials and say, hold off. Whether you could go beyond that is a very open question. So we, you know, we continue to hope, probably against experience, that because the projections were so totally inaccurate this last time. They missed on five states. They just missed on five states, not just Florida.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: By wide margins sometimes.
FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: And sometimes by wide margins. That voluntary action might possibly take place.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senator Gorton, Chris Edley, thank you both very much.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Thanks for having us.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|