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November 30, 2007
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NOW Transcript - Show 348
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Transcript - November 30, 2007

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. The election year is just around the corner and it's time ask the question, how safe is your right to vote? Over the past few years we've been reporting on the various ways your vote can be suppressed: Everything from problems with voting machines to voter identification laws. Stay with me to meet former Justice Department official David Becker. He saw from the inside just what the government was doing or not doing to protect every citizen's right to vote. Now a voting rights activist, Becker is concerned about 2008 and says the government is part of the problem.

BRANCACCIO: Well, David Becker, thanks for joining us.

BECKER: It's my pleasure, Dave.

BRANCACCIO: How are we doing, America as a beacon of democracy?

BECKER: Well, the short answer is not so great, unfortunately. There have been problems with voters being intentionally disenfranchised. Vote suppression is still going on. And it is having a substantial impact on not just actual elections, but also, the confidence of our citizens in those elections and the results of those elections.

BRANCACCIO: You have to explain to me how some of this works. And let's go through some of it. For instance, one part of it is requiring voter photo identification. Increasingly, states are asking for this. A lot of it is in court. The idea here is to stop people who are not supposed to vote. For instance, in many states, parolees aren't supposed to vote—from voting. There's nothing wrong with that part of it, right?

BECKER: No. Of course, only eligible voters should vote. But one of the things that we have discovered and countless studies have confirmed is that we actually have a fairly honest citizenry when it comes to voting. And they—people take voting pretty seriously. The Bush Justice Department even initiated a special ballot integrity initiative to try to find out whether people were committing voter fraud, pretending to be someone else when they voted, voting when they were ineligible. And over the course of about four years, they discovered only two dozen instances of that kind of voter impersonation fraud.

BRANCACCIO: But are you kidding me? I mean, I turn on AM radio. And I'm constantly hearing—people venting about the perceived problem of all this fraud at the polls nationwide.

BECKER: And sadly, it's an invented problem, because if the extreme right wingers who have tried to promote this kind of idea didn't have this potential threat, they couldn't come up with this nee—unnecessary solution of things like voter I.D. which restrict access to the toll—to the polls and, ultimately, do disenfranchise eligible voters who otherwise would be able to cast a ballot and have it counted.

BRANCACCIO: Well, it's interesting to explore this. Because on its face, you say, "So what?" Ask people to have a photo I.D. so they can vote. In fact, in 2006, we were in Georgia, a state that had passed a voter I.D. law—though it was bound up in court. We met a wonderful woman by the name of Rosa Laster. She was in her late eighties at the time we spoke with her. And it was not a trivial undertaking for her to try to get to a place to get an official I.D. so she could vote.

[NOW on PBS - September 1, 2006]

HINOJOSA: Laster, a retired nurse, has lived in Plains all her life and for years, she's been able to vote close to home without a photo I.D. But now, in order to get an ID, she'd have to go 11 miles away to Americus, the county seat.

And that, she says, could be really tough. The closest relative who could drive her lives four hours away.

LASTER: I would have to get somebody to take me over there, bring me back. And then I'd have to pay them. And sometimes, you don't have the money.

BRANCACCIO: You meet a person like that. But still, you will hear the rejoinder that society isn't asking too much to ask even someone like Rosa Laster to figure out a way to get the photo I.D.

BECKER: We're not used to—to seeing people who don't have photo I.D. I mean, you and I carry it in our daily lives. We both live in big cities. However, about one out of every eight people in this country, citizens, do not have photo I.D. And one of the reasons for that is it's not just the trouble of getting the photo I.D. But, in order to get a photo I.D. in most of these states, you need back up documentation to prove you are who you say you are. You need a birth certificate. You need a passport. These things cost a lot of money.

It's essentially a poll tax. To take people who are living on very tight budgets and say, "You have to spend $50 on a birth certificate, $95 on a passport, to go and be able to get the kind of I.D. to—take advantage of the most fundamental right in our democracy, the most fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution, right to vote."

BRANCACCIO: Who's affected most when the requirements go up for I.D. to cast your ballot?

BECKER: These laws disproportionately impact minority communities, student communities, elderly communities and the poor. These are the people who are least likely to have I.D. Between 140,000 and 170,000 Missouri citizens, eligible voters, did not have the photo I.D. necessary in order to cast a ballot in Missouri. Similarly, in Georgia, some independent academics reviewed the data and determined that 300,000 Georgia citizens did not have the photo I.D. necessary in order to cast a ballot under the new laws in Georgia. I don't think there could be much disagreement that disenfranchising 150,000, 300,000 of your fellow citizens just in one state is—is a way to go about building a democracy.

BRANCACCIO: There are legal fights about voter i.d. across the country. The big case could be resolved next year when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on Indiana's photo identification requirement. Indiana is one of two states with especially strict i.d. rules. If it's upheld by the high court, other states could pass similar laws in time for the presidential election.

BECKER: I urge everyone to keep a close eye on that. It could have a very big impact on this election. And I hope the Supreme Court recognizes—especially after—the—the fiasco of Bush v. Gore and some of the credibility issues the court had shortly thereafter that these—these decisions they make aren't being made in a vacuum. They affect real people's ability to go out and dictate who is going to govern them. And that matters.

BRANCACCIO: Voter I.D. And then, there's this I.D. that has a weird name. It's called voter caging. My team and I looked into this this summer. The idea is—in this case, the Republican Party—sends out nice little letters to registered voters. And if those letters come back as Not Delivered, the idea is to use that returned letter as evidence of why someone should get their name struck off the voter rolls. Let's take a look.

[NOW on PBS - July 27, 2007]

BRANCACCIO: Documents have surfaced showing that in 2004, the republicans put in motion a plan to hold down the democratic vote in key battleground states. As more detail becomes known, many are convinced that republican officials broke the law by aiming to disqualify voters based on race.

PALAST: This is a big problem in America. We're still asking today, nearly half a century after Martin Luther King was killed, do black people have the right to vote?

Here's how it worked. The Republican Party sent these newly registered voters a friendly welcome letter. It began, "Congratulations!" But what the Republicans really wanted to see was whether that letter could be delivered. If a letter could not be delivered, the name was added to a list of people the Republicans planned to stop as they tried to vote. What seemed like an innocuous piece of junk mail was really a test.

BRANCACCIO: Behind the scenes, Republican officials were delighted. NOW was able to obtain some of their e-mail. In one, an official calls the returned letters, "a goldmine." In another, officials discuss doing the same thing in other battleground states, including, Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico.

In Ohio, the Republicans eventually put together a list of 35,000 people to stop on Election Day.

BRANCACCIO: That's voter caging. But, related to that is—something that many people haven't thought about before. It's called voter purging. How does that work?

BECKER: Basically, what the D.O.J. has been doing in recent years—is to go into jurisdiction states and tell them—for instance, "You have more voters on your registration list than the census estimates are eligible to vote currently right now." They then force the jurisdiction to go through their list and to start engaging in a program where they're going to literally take off ten, sometimes hundreds of thousands of voters off of those lists. And inevitably include some voters who are eligible who still need to vote and who often don't know that they're being removed from these lists.

BRANCACCIO: What happens to them when they show up at the polls to vote? They thought they were registered.

BECKER: The poll workers tell them they're not on the rolls—not through any fault of their own. And—they're given a provisional ballot. It's kept separate, in a separate envelope. But ultimately, if these people aren't on the rolls, that provisional ballot's not gonna be counted.

BRANCACCIO: So, you had the U.S. Justice Department saying to states—in some cases, threatening to sue states—in some cases, suing states?


BRANCACCIO: "Clean up those voter registration lists." And you're saying that's probably gonna catch a whole bunch of legitimate voters and cancel their right on election day?

BECKER: That's exactly right. And ironically, it's coming out of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, the Voting Section there where I used to work—which has traditionally been the place where the traditionally disenfranchised knew they had lawyers fighting for them to make sure they would be able to cast a ballot.

BRANCACCIO: Ever since President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act - considered the legislative crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement - the U.S. Justice Department has had expanded powers to protect minorities from discriminatory voting laws.

Becker thought he had landed his dream job when he joined Justice in 1998. But he says things changed radically when the Bush Administration came in and changed the way voting laws were enforced.

BRANCACCIO: You saw some of this while you were still at the Justice Department, the beginning of the shift?

BECKER: Sure, yeah. I—I—

BRANCACCIO: Really? How does it play out?

BECKER: Well, every administration has a right to set its priorities. There—and—and—and a realignment on priorities is often legitimate. I think in this administration, we saw something quite different. We saw a complete subversion of the—of the traditional mission of the Justice Department. For instance, during about a five-year span, not one single case was brought on behalf of African-Americans in—in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division. There has never been a span like that in the history of the voting section.

This isn't just a partisan issue. This isn't Republican, Democrat. There have been Republicans administrations where even though priorities might have been reassessed, enforcement of the law was always done on a non-partisan basis. Now, they might have philosophical differences from other administrations. Progressives and Democrats are usually viewed as being a little more activist in their enforcement of the laws. And conservatives and Republicans are usually viewed as being a little more states rights and not being quite as activist.

But, you wouldn't see policies being established which, on the one hand, favored Republicans. And yet, when the same thing happened, they would—they would choose the path that disfavored Democrats. And that's what started happening in this—in this administration.

You'd see a redistricting plan that was drawn by Democrats. And you'd see this administration very much go after the redistricting plan and try to prove that it violated the Voting Rights Act. Whereas a redistricting plan that was drawn by Republicans would come before the voting section. And you'd see a very hands off approach.

That should be very troubling to people. 'Cause I would hope that people of both parties would want to make sure that if the other party was in power, they weren't gaming the system to make sure that their party was going to remain in power.

BRANCACCIO: Becker wasn't the only attorney who was unhappy at Justice. Since 2005, over half of the career lawyers in the Department's voting section have left.

BECKER: A lot of this, fortunately, has come out now thanks to the U.S. attorney scandal and Con—

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, big scandal of the year. There are these—many of the Republican U.S. attorneys who are on the record now as saying they were pressured into finding evidence and prosecuting cases of voter fraud. And in many jurisdictions, they couldn't really find many.

BRANCACCIO: One of those prosecutors was David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney from New Mexico... whom we spoke to this past summer.

[NOW on PBS - July 27, 2007]

BRANCACCIO: Iglesias says his task force could not find a single case of voter fraud worth prosecuting. State Republican officials were so angry, they complained to senior White House aide Karl Rove. A short time later, Iglesias got the boot.

IGLESIAS: What really scarred the party was the election of 2000, in which the President lost the popular vote, but won the Presidency through litigation and I believe there was an attempt to not ever let this happen again. And win by any means, legal or otherwise. It's reprehensible, it's unethical, it's unlawful. It very well may be criminal.

BECKER: This was someone who—his career could have skyrocketed if he had just done what his higher ups had wanted. But, un—but, fortunately, for all of us, he felt his higher duty. And his duty was to enforcing the law. And he knew there were no prosecutions to be had here. And there were no—there was no violations of the law.

BECKER: I think this has been largely the conclusion of Congress as well—Republicans and Democrats—that the D.O.J. especially under Alberto—Alberto Gonzalez—was being used as an arm of the right wing of the Republican party to effectuate partisan gains in elections.

BRANCACCIO: Let's drill down a bit on this issue of partisanship. You work for People for the American Way, a liberal organization. And there are some people who watch this and see your words and your work as really a strategy to get Democrats elected. The idea being, Republicans are always screaming voter fraud. Democrats are always screaming voter disenfranchisement. But really, it's just a tactic.

BECKER: This is not about getting Democrats elected. It's not about getting Republicans elected. If the vast majority of people in this country wanna vote for one political party over another, they should be able to. And they should be able to express their opinions at the polls without fear of intimidation or suppression. And unfortunately, we don't have that right now. Because there is—there are elements of the Republican party at least who are actively engaged in a—overall scheme to minimize the number of votes of people that they don't think they can convince to vote for them.

There is a cynical element out there who's promoting these restrictive laws that find it easy to dismiss people and just say, "Oh, they're just liberals. You can dismiss them." And simply, it's just not true. The fact of the matter is during my career at the Justice Department, I sued Democrats far more than I sued Republicans. I—my—

BRANCACCIO: What? In cases involving how they drew district lines?

BECKER: Redistricting, other potentially discriminatory practices on—regarding voter registration and things of the sort. My former chief of the Voting Section—who worked for 36 years in the Civil Rights Division, wor—worked for Richard Nixon, worked for—President Ford, President Reagan, President—Bush's father—as well as Clinton and Carter. He worked for all those years. It was this administration that drove him out of the Civil Rights Division. Because no longer could he enforce the laws in a way that was even handed with regard to both parties. And similarly for me, that—that was—that was a real concern of mine. And I would no sooner have enforced the law to the benefit of the Democratic Party—than I would for the Republican Party.

BRANCACCIO: Now, let's talk about voting machines. A lotta people very worried about, for instance, electronic voting and even non-electronic voting. and there have been moves by the federal government to promote more modern technology at America's polling places. Yet, even by the midterm elections in 2006, they were still problems. We happened to be in Michigan with the NOW camera crew watching as they were trying out some machines. Let's take a look.

[NOW on PBS - September 8, 2006]

BRANCACCIO: Just a few minutes after our arrival it became clear that things were off to an interesting start.

RANCELLI: I'm not sure why this is happening

BRANCACCIO: A couple of election officials have run into a snag with one of the new voting machines. It's called the Automark and was designed specifically to help disabled people vote.

The two workers try to run a few test ballots, but can't get the machine to work.

LARRY: "Print validation failed."

RANCELLI: That's because your ballot jammed again coming out.

BRANCACCIO: In the end, no luck. Going into the primaries, election officials had been apprehensive about this machine.

BRANCACCIO: How big a problem is this issue of voting machines?

BECKER: They still pose a significant problem, I'd say. I think that—we are still seeing problems in the election technology that we're using, being able to properly count and then—justify the counts through audits and other means.

BRANCACCIO: Are you for a paper trail, for instance, when you vote?

BECKER: Absolutely. I think that there has to be some kind of permanent record of a ballot. I mean, we saw real problems with that in 2006, probably most notably, in Sarasota County, Florida where in the 13th Congressional District there, a seat that Katherine Harris was vacating -

BRANCACCIO: The Katherine Harris from the 2000 vote count in the Presidential election?

BECKER: A—absolutely. These things keep coming back, it appears. And—

BRANCACCIO: And that was a very close election.

BECKER: Very close. An open seat election, very tightly contested, undoubtedly the most tightly contested election in that area. And yet, the electronic voting machines there, the touch screen machines, did not record 18,000 votes in that race. And keep in mind, this was a race that was ultimately decided by 369 votes. It was that close. Congress is currently investigating it. There are law suits going on investigating it. Had they had a paper record, we might have a better way of determining who the real winner in that race was. As it stands—the people of Sarasota County and the 13th Congressional District have to be very—curious as to whether or not the person that they truly elected is representing them in Congress right now.

BRANCACCIO: So, in the end, are you worried that the problems are so widespread that next year's Presidential election could really get stolen?

BECKER: Stolen might be a strong word. But, when you see circumstances like we saw in Ohio, where there were an insufficient number of voting machines in precincts with large numbers of black voters compared to white voters in places like Franklin County, Ohio and voters, disproportionately African-Americans voters, waiting in long lines to get to the polls, and having to leave without casting a ballot.

When you see people being stationed in areas where they think there are gonna be large numbers of Hispanics voters and racially profiling voters without regard to whether they actually know whether they are a citizen or not to try to intimidate them before they get into the polls. Yes, it can effect the—the outcome of an election. And it's anti-democratic behavior. And we should be outraged by it. And we should be fighting it.

BRANCACCIO: Well, you say people should be outraged. Can they do anything else?

BECKER: It's incumbent upon all of us, unfortunately, in this environment, to do whatever we can, be in contact with our registrars and county election officials to make sure we're on the rolls, make sure we verify where our polling place is. I encourage everyone—every voter, do not take your status as a voter for granted. People are out there trying to target you based upon who they think you're going to vote for.

BRANCACCIO: Well David Becker, Democracy Campaign, People for the American Way. Thank you very much.

BECKER: Thank you, David.

BRANCACCIO: This is the time when many public television stations are asking for your support. We at now could not bring you unvarnished voices like David Becker without your help. Now is the time to give generously to your local public television station. And that's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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