MARGARET WARNER: Despite congressional efforts to fix balloting procedures after the Florida debacle in 2000, last year's presidential election saw additional problems. Long lines at the polls and disputes over voter lists and provisional ballots surfaced in a number of states, particularly Ohio where President Bush narrowly defeated John Kerry. Today a private commission led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker presented President Bush and Congress with a new report on how to fix the system further.
Among the commission's 87 recommendations are: calls for standardized photo ID's for all voters; state, not local control over voter registration lists; verifiable paper trails for electronic voting machines; uniform statewide standards for counting provisional ballots; and moving towards the nonpartisan administration of elections.
I discussed the commission's findings with President Carter and former Secretary Baker this afternoon on the campus of American University, the lead sponsor of the commission's work.
MARGARET WARNER: President Carter, Secretary Baker thanks for joining us. After the election debacle in Florida in 2000, there was a new law enacted to try to correct a lot of the problems. Why are further changes needed now, President Carter?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, back four years ago I served on a similar commission in chairmanship with President Gerald Ford, and we made recommendations that the Congress didn't receive with much enthusiasm. But as you know, two years later in 2002 they passed a Help America Vote Act -- H-A-V-A, HAVA -- and after the 2004 election, we saw that there were still a lot of omissions or needs in the overall election process in this country to make things more uniform, to encourage voter registration, to make sure that election officials were nonpartisan as much as possible, and to deal with the plethora of electronic voting machines in which the people have some doubt about if their votes are going to be counted accurately.
So those kinds of questions have been very important in casting doubt among the American people about the basic integrity of the election system, and if their votes will really be counted accurately. So we had 21 members in our commission -- Republicans and Democrats. And we came out, I think with unanimous recommendations that will go a long way toward resolving the remaining problems for the electoral system in our country.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Secretary Baker, that even after the reforms from that 2002 Act that Americans don't have full confidence in the elections?
JAMES BAKER: Yes I do. These recommendations all will move us in the direction of enhancing the American people's confidence in our voting system.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, what's your evidence that the American people don't have confidence in it now?
JAMES BAKER: Well, just look at polls. There's still a lot of questions out there on the part of the people. As the president indicated, a lot of people don't think their votes are going to be adequately counted or accurately counted. Many people fear fraud on the other side and many people fear there's a denial of access.
And what this report does, frankly, in our opinion, is to hopefully eliminate the sterile debate that we have had in this country for so many years between the advocates of ballot integrity on the one hand and the advocates of ballot, greater access on the other.
MARGARET WARNER: President Carter, in your post presidency, you have spent a lot of time as an election monitor all around the world, looking at elections in all kinds of emergent democracies. How does the U.S. system stack up internationally?
JIMMY CARTER: Some of those countries are still in the embryonic stage of becoming democracies and having free and fair elections. Others have made tremendous progress and have election systems that I would say are much clearer than ours.
But there's one prevailing improvement in their countries compared to ours, and that is almost invariably around the world, there's a bipartisan or nonpartisan central election commission that sets uniform standards for voting all over the country.
As you know, in our nation, we still have secretaries of state and also campaign managers and we have other abuses of the system that's not nonpartisan.
Also, there are countries like Mexico or Venezuela that have long had electronic voting machines. And at the same time the people vote a paper ballot comes out. They compare the paper ballot with the way the electronic machine says before they approve it. And then later, if there is a question, you've got a paper trail following up on the electronic machine. That's a recommendation that our group is making.
So, in general, of course, America's got a long history of democracy and freedom of which we are very proud; many of them have learned from our country. I think now in some cases we can learn from them.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, let's talk about the most contentious provision and that is to have this national standard, I shouldn't say national because they are issued by the states, but a standard voter ID card that all even registered voters would have to show to vote. Why is that necessary, Secretary Baker?
JAMES BAKER: Well, it will -- as I said earlier -- it will enhance confidence in the system because you know, then, that the person who presents the photo ID at the polls is the person who they are claiming to be. Our recommendation goes to the states. The Congress has just passed something called a Real ID Act, which will require all states in their driver's licenses to follow a standard template form sometime in the near future.
We would see using that as the voter ID card; the only change you'd have to make in it is make one little notation on the front or back that the person is an American citizen. We avoid abuses by providing that anyone who does not have a driver's license or real ID card can get one free. And we recommend to the states that they aggressively go out and market these free cards to people who are not registered.
Furthermore, our recommendations tie the photo voter ID card to registration. So if you have a voter ID card, you are automatically registered. Lastly, we think this will -- we think this will benefit, frankly, minorities because anybody that has a voter ID card will not be turned away from the polls. We make them available for free and we provide a uniform standard so that the states cannot legislate in ways that would discriminate in providing or requiring a photo ID.
MARGARET WARNER: President Carter --
JIMMY CARTER: Let me add one thing to that.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, do.
JIMMY CARTER: It was very encouraging to us that Andy Young, for instance, says this will help minority voting instead of deterring it.
MARGARET WARNER: Nonetheless three members of your commission, Tom Daschle noted -- and your report does -- that 12 percent of Americans don't have driver's licenses and he said this still would be a major obstacle, a major hurdle for people who don't, who it is believed tend to either be poor, or urban, or elderly or disabled and he called it a modern day poll tax. Now, what do you say to that?
JIMMY CARTER: That's an error. In Georgia, legislation which I condemn, it is a poll tax because the Georgia law which ought to be overthrown by the courts requires that you buy a voter ID card, which costs you about $20 for five years, or $35 for 10 years. That is a poll tax. We require in our recommendations that the voter ID card be free of charge. And we require that every state have an active recruitment program to go out and find people who are not registered and give them voter identification.
So we really make sure, also, that if somebody comes forward between now and 2010 without a photo ID card, they can have a provisional ballot and after that, they've got 48 hours to go and bring in adequate identification. So we have eliminated almost all the complaints against the photo ID card.
JAMES BAKER: Can I add to that I have the greatest respect for Senator Daschle but in this case he is wrong. This is not a poll tax. We do not charge.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, one of the members of the commission and Mr. Overton pointed out, though, that say absentee ballots, which whites tend to use much more than minorities do, there is no photo ID, you are filling it out at home and sending it in and just -- only a signature is required. So is there a double standard?
JAMES BAKER: No, there is not and there is a photo ID required to get your first absentee -- to get registered and get an absentee ballot. But there is signatures required to get subsequent ballots because in a centralized voter location, you have the software, and the technology to compare the signatures -- the digital comparison or whatever the technology is, and I'm not well-versed in that. But you can't have that at every polling place.
MARGARET WARNER: I want to ask about this idea of making election officials nonpartisan. We have a long history in our country of elected secretaries of state all the way down to the local and county level. Are you saying Congress should mandate this? Isn't this going to be a major change to go to some kind of completely nonpartisan election administration?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, in almost all other countries as I've described, there is a nationwide election commission. We'll never go to that in our country. And I'm not advocating it because we have a federalism system where each state is basically responsible.
We are calling on the states to take action, to make sure that every election official in charge of the election is patently nonpartisan and is not taking a highly biased position about who should win an election other than their own election if they are an elected official. That's what we are recommending.
JAMES BAKER: And it is a recommendation only. It is not a mandate -- it's not a congressional -- we are recommending this to the states. We do recommend to Congress that they add a fifth person to the election assistance commission who is nonpartisan. But our recommendation is to the states.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you presented this to President Bush.
JIMMY CARTER: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: And you presented it to Congress. Did you get any commitment from either of them to push these reforms forward, and what are the consequences if it doesn't happen?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, it wouldn't be appropriate for us to quote the president. He will make a statement of his own. We hope that the president will, you know, give his approval for the report with maybe some caveat -- specific things he doesn't approve -- and we hope this will be the same way in Congress.
MARGARET WARNER: But what are the consequences if nothing is done?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, if neither the Congress acts nor any of the state legislatures and governors act, then I would be very disappointed, but I think the pressure is going to come from the people themselves because in the public opinion polls, one third or more of the American people feel I don't believe my vote is likely to be counted accurately. And so the need is so great, we feel confident that collectively the major portion of our recommendations will be implemented.
JAMES BAKER: And hopefully, if not implemented entirely, at least that they will receive support from and endorsement by let's say the executive branch and some in the legislative branch.
MARGARET WARNER: Then a final question. You're a Democrat. You are not only a Republican, Secretary Baker, but you led the Republican legal challenge in Florida in 2000. Did that create any awkwardness working together?
JAMES BAKER: None whatsoever for me. There are issues in here that President Carter might not completely agree with; there are issues in here that I don't completely agree with but there's been a lot of compromise in pulling this report together. President Carter deserves a lot of the credit for making sure that this was done on a nonpartisan -- or bipartisan basis.
JIMMY CARTER: It was as harmonious a relationship as you could possibly imagine. And I think the fact that Jim Baker and I get along well and understood each other and could speak with some authority for most of the members of our party was a major factor in the other members of the commission reaching a point where every one of them signed the final report.
MARGARET WARNER: President Carter and Secretary Baker, thank you both.
JAMES BAKER: Thank you.
JIMMY CARTER: We've enjoyed being with you.