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‘Electoral Dysfunction’ Highlights Peculiarities in American Voting System

Video produced by Cassie M. Chew.

In a new PBS documentary set to air on stations across the country this fall, television personality Mo Rocca and a group of newly naturalized citizens take a magnifying glass to a giant copy of the U.S. constitution.

They are looking for the section of the revered document that gives U.S. citizens the right to vote, but they don’t find it. Contrary to popular belief, the constitution doesn’t guarantee this right. Instead the founding fathers leave voting matters up to individual states. And that has given birth to the myriad of state laws, the more than 13,000 voting districts and the motivation behind the film’s title, “Electoral Dysfunction”.

The documentary takes viewers on a road trip through Indiana during the final weeks of the 2008 presidential election. Along the way, it highlights inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies in how Americans elect their highest officials.

“Voting is a fundamental part of our democracy and yet so many aspects are misunderstood,” filmmaker Bennett Singer said describing the motivation for spending the last six years on the film.

The film explores issues of voting reform up for discussion since the highly contested 2000 presidential election. In that contest, Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote by a half million votes, but after a recount of several contested counties in Florida, the Supreme Court awarded that state’s electoral votes, and thus the presidency, to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. This prompted some to call for a national popular vote and advocates on both sides of the aisle rallied against peculiarities in the system that they said could either lead to disenfranchisement or fraud at polls.

With the 2012 presidential race between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney reportedly a dead heat, the Electoral College versus a national popular vote again may strike a fire in some election reform activists. Pundits already have assigned the majority of electoral votes to one of the two contenders, putting the outcome of the election in the hands of a few states.

Singer along with political experts say this is one of the reasons the country has a relatively low turnout at the polls.

“A national popular vote would have a big impact on voter turnout,” Singer said. “We would no longer have red states and blue states where individual votes don’t matter.”

In addition to tackling the Electoral College the film also explores other unresolved issues in the American voting system, including the impact of voter identification laws on Election Day turnout and access to the ballot.

To complement the documentary, the filmmakers have released “Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters,” which delves into the history of the American voting system and examines proposals for reform.

In this video, NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman chats with the book’s author Victoria Bassetti.

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