Turnover at a major D.C. government department is raising questions about local businesses, political contributions and influence in city politics.
Long lines, technical glitches and confusion over new voting rules marred Tuesday’s presidential election at many polling places. Partisans on both sides cried foul. International poll monitors, invited by the debacle in Florida in 2000, were turned away in several states. We look at the factors behind our flawed election process, and what’s being done to address problems.
- Thomas Rymer Spokesperson, Long Term Election Observation Mission with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
- David Becker Director, Election Initiatives for the Pew Center on the States
- Barbara Arnwine Executive Director, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Five-hour wait to vote in Dumfries, Va., six-hour waits in Miami, it became something of a Twitter pastime to report how long you waited in line at your polling place on Tuesday. For a beacon of democracy and the wealthy capable nation, American elections are surprisingly disorganized and error prone.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe all remember the debacle in Florida in 2000 that made hanging chads and butterfly ballots household words. This time around, there was confusion about new voting rules, technical glitches and shortages of machines, ballots and poll workers. Both international and domestic organizations have been observing the system since the Florida mess and have ideas as to how we might fix it.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this is Thomas Rymer. He is the spokesperson for the Long Term Election Observation Mission with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a 56-nation body of which the U.S. is a founding member. Thomas Rymer, thank you for joining us.
MR. THOMAS RYMERThank you. Good to be here.
NNAMDIDavid Becker is with us. He is the director of Election Initiatives for the Pew Center on the States. David Becker, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID BECKERGreat to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Barbara Arnwine is here. She's president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She also leads Election Protection, the nation's largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition, launched in 2004 to assist historically disenfranchised persons to exercise the fundamental right to vote. Barbara Arnwine, good to see you.
MS. BARBARA ARNWINEIt is a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAnd you, too, can make it a pleasure to be involved in this conversation by joining it, call us at 800-433-8850. What issues did you see at your polling place on Tuesday? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIThomas, your organization monitors elections around the world, including since 2000 here in the U.S. or since 2002. We'll get the specifics, but first, can you give us an overview of what your organization observed in this election, both in terms of what works in our system and what is not working so well?
RYMERSure. Our office, the mission from our office was here for the six-week period leading up to the elections and is still actually working today following the process and seeing -- we cover comprehensively the whole process and even in places like the United States where you have 50 different essentially elections happening at the same time to try and provide the most comprehensive assessment of that process as best we can.
NNAMDIFifty-one, 50 states and the District of Columbia.
RYMERAnd the District of Columbia.
RYMERI forgot where I was.
RYMEROff to a great start. The thing -- for us, there are many positive things. We released a preliminary statement yesterday of findings and conclusions. Now, generally, the role of our office is to provide -- to assess election procedures in the participating states, the 56 of them you mentioned, and then in final reports on those elections to provide recommendations based on our findings to help them improve electoral procedures in the country in question.
RYMERWe do, though, also because there's -- everybody wants to know the day after how things went, so yesterday, we had a preliminary statement that we released at press conference here in D.C. And the basic preliminary findings from this are that there's no question that the United States elections are highly competitive. There's a lot of energy here with this pluralistic system. Media is always a positive thing and, personally, as a former journalist, great to follow when I'm on this side of the ocean. Our office is in Warsaw.
RYMERAnd that there appears to be -- and in the feedback we got from the different stakeholders in the process, whether there was elect -- voters, whether political parties, civil society representatives or representatives of media that there's a fairly high level of confidence in the process itself. That said, there, of course -- and our job is to make recommendations on how these things can be improved and these procedures can be improved.
RYMERAnd there are issues, I think, that need to be addressed in line with OSCE commitments, as well as international standards and even U.S. domestic law, things having to do with campaign financing, voters' rights and the accuracy of voters' list, which are two things that kind of balance against each other, as well as recount procedures and something perhaps closer to our heart access for international election observers to actually observe the entire process.
NNAMDISomething we'll be discussing in greater detail later in the broadcast. Barbara Arnwine, as we mentioned, this election will be remembered in particular for long lines. What kinds of reports did you get about wait times around the country?
ARNWINEWell, they varied significantly based on where you were voting. It was very interesting that the major of complaints where we received about long lines came from predominantly African-American and predominantly Latino neighborhoods. And indeed, in one instance in Florida, there was a polling site that had two precincts, one predominantly African-American, one predominantly white, and in the predominantly white precinct, the line was -- had only 10 people in it.
ARNWINEAnd the predominantly African-American precinct, the line was out the door. And at the African-American precinct, they had one machine for all of these people. At the white precinct, they had two machines. So it's again this racially disparate treatment within our election administration. Obviously, there are problems with just, you know, poor underinvestment by our states in their electoral process, which results in poorly trained poll workers et cetera.
ARNWINEBut we also are seeing where, you know, somebody said that he was -- I talked to somebody who used to be a secretary of state, and he said that the solution always was when machines got old, send them to the black communities. And that seems to be the -- still the process. And I just think that we need to really be looking at how to take out of the voting process racial disparities but also how to improve the process for all Americans.
NNAMDIIn this region, some places like Hampton Roads in Virginia had long wait times in 2008. What were the reasons given for the long wait time this -- wait in line this time?
ARNWINEOh, you don't want to hear it. The reason given made me scream. It was that they "did not anticipate a high voter turnout."
NNAMDIThey did not a high -- anticipate a high voter turnout. This is where you come in, David Becker, because preliminary reports indicate that voter turnout will, in fact, likely be less than it was in 2008. So is there any excuse not to be prepared for voter turnout?
BECKERWell, I think one of the things that everyone needs to remember about elections, presidential elections in particular, once every four years, about 130 million of our fellow citizens all go out to do the same thing on the same day somewhere. Some of them might have done it early, but still it's about 100 million people who might go out and vote on Election Day. It's a remarkable challenge that by and large election officials meet very well.
BECKERIt is -- it's a very tough thing to get this whole machinery of democracy running every four years and have it run smoothly. And there are a lot of places where even swing states were in fact that did appear to move pretty smoothly. The lines were relatively short. Voters had relatively few complaints. That being said, there are a variety of ways in which the administration of elections can break down somewhat on Election Day not planning for turnout properly is one way that it can -- that can break down.
BECKEROne of the big factors is the voter list. Having accurate information on a voter list, up-to-date information on the voter list is very, very important because one of the key choke points, one of the ways that lines primarily begin to form is because the process of checking a voter in takes too long, and that's because the information they have differs from what's on the list. And so if states can find ways -- and we're working with several states to do this -- to try to keep up with voters as they move primarily.
BECKEROur mobile society is a tremendous challenge for election officials. About 30 percent of voters move between presidential elections. And so if we can find a way to keep up with voters as they move, upgrade our voter registration systems -- and then also there are other factors, of course, that can impact this. Florida, for instance, had a very long ballot. So the process of actually casting a ballot might take a long time, meaning there might not be machines or availability of places to vote, which can really impact how quickly the lines move.
NNAMDIGiven that -- well, same basic question to you, Thomas Rymer, and that is, given that the turnout is expected to be less than it was in 2008 and given what David pointed out, is there any excuse not to be prepared for a high voter turnout in presidential election years?
RYMERWell, I don't think so, and I think what David points out there -- the voter lists are definitely something that we focus on in the preliminary statement we released. And that it's -- there are a number of things that are very difficult with the situation. One of the difficulties coming in here, we think, is that in a large number of states electoral legislation itself was changed very close to the actual Election Day. And this is -- we tend to look at things in line with OSCE commitments and broader international standards.
RYMERAnd it's accepted good practice that you give enough lead time between the implementation, the introduction of new regulations. So I think, as we have spoken of here, you have people who in -- for a past election and the past set of laws may have been highly trained. But if a new set of regulations or new set of laws were introduced this close to the process, training these people up to be able to keep these lines moving is very difficult. And even having a basic agreement sometimes in a room what the new law means or what the new regulations mean can be difficult.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking with election observers for this 2012 election. Do you think the American election system meets the standard we advocate for other nations? 800-433-8850. We heard about long waits in districts and that particular polling places in Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, all swing states, David and then Barbara, what about in places where the media focus was not that intense?
BECKERThat's a great question, Kojo. It appears that largely things went smoothly -- there, of course, some exceptions to that -- you're going to find more problems, more concentrations of voters that are highly mobile in urban areas. That's just a fact. The census confirms this. And urban areas tend to have more mobile populations. As a result of that, because of the voter lists not being up to date, they're going to be more likely to have longer lines, more difficulties at the polling places, things like provisional ballots have to be offered, things along those lines.
BECKERAnd, of course, urban areas, large metropolitan areas are also where the media is concentrated. So you often see those kinds of things happening where the media happens to be concentrated and looking for. Election officials know that on Election Day -- and I don't think there's an election official in the country -- I work with many of them -- who wants these breakdowns to occur.
BECKERThey realize it's an embarrassment. But they realize on Election Day the media is looking for something to do until the results start coming out. And so they'll naturally congregate around the areas where there are problems. That doesn't mean those problems aren't significant, and they need to be addressed. They absolutely do. And particularly when you see something like what was going on in Miami-Dade County, Fla. and some of the suburban areas in Northern Virginia, those are significant concerns. And I would hope they'd try to find ways to address them in the future.
NNAMDIBarbara, reports you were getting from places where the media focus was not that intense?
ARNWINEAbsolutely. There were problems. For example, in Georgia, in Fulton County, they ran out of ballots. Yes, and they were -- they -- in fact, they ran out of ballots so much -- so badly that several polling places were just inoperable. And people -- thousands of people were not able to vote at closing time in Georgia. So that was a problem that we noticed in Fulton County. During early voting, Louisiana, in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans, you know, very, very long lines. And, you know, and the good news -- I think, I mean, there's good news, bad news.
ARNWINEI mean, the good news is that more states had early voting. The bad news is some states had cut back the time for early voting. And that's why I say that, you know, the Tidewater to (word?) from Chesapeake and Hampton Roads and all these places that they didn't anticipate large voter turnout is inexcusable because they're right next door to North Carolina that saw the largest early voting turnout ever in history. So they knew there was -- voter enthusiasm was high, and they should've made some emergency preparations to make sure that they had working machines.
ARNWINEThe other problem we did hear about a lot at the long line places that a lot of the reasons where long lines -- Milwaukee, for example, were because of malfunctioning machines. You know, the machines just weren't working, or they were chewing up ballots. Or they weren't able to -- the optical scans were not able to read the ballots. So there were all kinds of, you know, problems with machinery. And, unfortunately, back-up procedures for malfunctioning machines were not in place, and they did not have adequate back-up procedures. So that was a huge problem.
NNAMDIThomas Rymer, is there any relationship at all between long wait times and an election's integrity?
RYMERWell, there is -- basically, the integrity of the election, yes, and if long wait times mean that voters who would otherwise cast their ballots decide that there's no point in coming to this line and go away. I mean, access to the vote whether it's through registration procedures, whether through the actual act of voting affect and, I mean, these are basic voting rights. So, of course, it's going to play a part.
NNAMDIHere is Emmanuel in Anne Arundel County, Md. Emmanuel, you are on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Emmanuel, can you hear me? Emmanuel, I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to put you on hold, see if we can reach you because we do have to take a short break now. And when we come back, we'll get to you and other callers. If you're trying to get through and the lines are busy, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us what do you think should be done to make wait times shorter on Election Day. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on election 2012 with observers of that election. We're talking with Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the leader of Election Protection, the nation's largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition launched in 2004 to assist historically disenfranchised persons to exercise the right to vote.
NNAMDIAlso with us is David Becker, director of Election Initiatives for the Pew Center on the States, and Thomas Rymer is the spokesperson for Long Term Election Observation Mission with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. We'll go to the phones again. Here now is Pat in Chevy Chase, Md. Pat, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATWell, thank you very much. I'm very glad to be able to speak my piece. I worked on Tuesday from 12:00 to 7:00 in Arlington County. It's a re-polling stations and won the largest was Carlin Springs...
NNAMDIWho were you working for?
PATElection Protection, the woman that you have on the air.
NNAMDIYeah, I've heard of that.
NNAMDIBarbara Arnwine, yes.
PATShe's, like, the boss of it, right?
NNAMDIYes, she is the boss of it, indeed.
PATSo I'm one of the foot soldiers.
PATOK. I live in a relatively upper middle-class neighborhood. My polling station -- I was there around 7:30 for maybe half an hour and 40 minutes. In my polling station, there were at least 12 machines. It was a large turnout, but people were moving along pretty quickly. That's Maryland, right? Chevy Chase.
PATI go over to Arlington County, Carlin Springs, a large gym. We get there around -- between 12:00 and 1:00, we were there twice, early 12:00 to 1:00 and then 3:30 to 7:00 'cause we had two other polling stations. But at Carlin Springs, there were four machines, four paper ballot areas for somewhere and two and 400 people in line all the time, all day, waiting, I would say, approximately, two to three hours. And this is a diverse -- middle-class diverse race, all ages, all races kind of voting area.
NNAMDIPat, what do you think accounted for the differentiation that you saw in those two locations?
PATWell, first, let me say the election officials were fabulous that we spoke with. They were working so hard and doing such a good job. And I can only say, I think it has to do with income, with people's and the county's income. Like, Montgomery County has a lot of money, Arlington County, not so much.
NNAMDINow, let me see what Barbara Arnwine has to say about that, the difference in income levels and the difference -- you hear a lot of people say that there needed to be money put into this.
ARNWINEAbsolutely. I think that there's a real problem with the underinvestment by election officials all over the country in their electoral process, making sure that they have modern machinery, making sure that they have technicians who are, you know, properly, you know, booting up the machines in advance, making sure that they're there to fix, you know, any problems, to have the back-up machinery. They have the back-up emergency ballots, regular ballots, that is, you know, all of the other processes and have, you know, well-trained poll workers.
ARNWINEBut also one thing I saw this year that was tragic was a -- the underinvestment in electoral, you know, educating voters about their rights, you know, sending out sample ballots, sending out other, you know, pre-information so voters could be prepared to vote. That was a real problem in a lot of states where they just didn't do enough of it compared to what they had even done in 2008. So there is this underinvestment that she is talking about where you just don't have enough money being put into the electoral process.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Pat. We move on...
ARNWINEAnd thanks for your service.
NNAMDIWe move on now to Fiona in The Plains, Va. Fiona, your turn.
FIONAHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I have what maybe a really silly question because I don't know a lot about how polling places are governed and who oversees them and the machinery and so forth. But I wonder if voter wait times could be shortened by having everybody in the country vote on the same system, whether it be an electronic machine or -- I voted on a Scantron. I know some places are still doing the punch cards.
FIONADoes it make sense to move to a system where everybody could at least vote on the same machine? In that way, you know, running out of paper ballots and so forth wouldn't be an issue. And who would, you know, who takes care of all that kind of stuff?
NNAMDII'm about to tell you, yes. It does make sense now. Here's David Becker to tell you why it won't happen.
BECKERWell, I mean, traditionally, in the United States, we have a federal system, and we allow the states to run their own elections. That is our tradition. There are -- I will say this, there are some good things that come out of that as well. Sometimes, states do really good things that then percolate up from that state elsewhere, things like online voter registration which has now been implemented in 13 states which is a wonderful tool.
BECKERAs for the specific systems, and this goes to Barbara's earlier point, more money might help, but the bigger question is, are you spending the money you have wisely? There's a lot of reforms that can be put in place that not only help improve the system but actually end up saving money in the long run, things like upgrading voter registration by sharing data better and coordinating better.
BECKERYou know, it's not just the 50 states plus D.C. plus the territories that run elections. It's actually 10,000 separate election jurisdictions all over the country. And so, for the previous caller as well who is talking about the difference between Maryland and Virginia, well, one difference -- another difference between Maryland and Virginia, and I know as a Maryland resident, is there was early voting. I voted early.
BECKEREarly voting was more widely available in Maryland than it was in Virginia, and that might have cut down on the Election Day turnout. One of the other important things I just want to point out is we are still studying exactly what the impact of all this was. We're still only less than 48 hours from the close of the polls. So I think it'll be very interesting to see how the research and the data comes out over the next several months. I'm sure we'll be reporting on that.
NNAMDIAnd there won't be any time in the immediate future when we can see a federal election system that is not administered by the states.
BECKERI think it would be fair to say that those who are looking to Washington for a solution will probably be waiting for a while. But there are some good things. I mean, we've talked a lot about the election law changes that happened over the past two to four years in the states, and it's caused a lot of partisan division. But there are some good processes that the states are looking at as well. And so I think those might point the way towards the states banding together to provide better systems nationwide.
NNAMDIWell, Thomas Rymer, I wanted to hear you weigh in on the question Fiona raised about the administration of elections and why it can't be one system for the entire country because in some countries of the world, that's indeed what it is.
RYMERActually, the majority of the countries in the OSCE regions at -- off the top of my head, I can't think of another where the situation that exists in the United States.
RYMERNow, the thing is, though, on with OSCE countries, it not -- the idea is that we're supporting democratization and democratic systems. The specifics of those systems is they are in the United States are what they are, and there's -- we're not here to say or in any of our (unintelligible) this needs to be changed. I think David brings up good points that there are positive things came out of this.
RYMERAnd this is something that we saw with our observation that there really were initiatives in certain states that could be looked at by other states for voter registration to encourage more people to get registered, and there really are some positive things out there. And that echoes with the work we do -- 'cause this is essentially what we're doing as an office -- is looking at positive practices in some participating states and then trying to share them with other participating states in a way that would benefit them.
RYMERThere's one thing I wanted to bring up, though, just very quickly, about this issue with the long waiting lines. I was at -- and this is anecdotal. It's one polling station. I was in Anacostia on voting day, at a polling station there at a police station, and it wasn't just the case of -- the line was about an hour and half, we were told.
RYMERWhat this causes, though, is also people, the poll workers, who were working very hard and, I think, it appeared to us to be doing a great job are trying to get through people as quickly as they can. And what you end up with is a ton of people in a room that's too small to hold them.
BECKERAnd this spills over into other standards...
BECKER...for election. So secrecy of the ballot, for example, is a very important one in this way.
NNAMDIYeah, a lot of people complained about that, about other people being able to see what they did.
BECKERAnd if you have that many people in a room that small, I mean, the chances that that is not going to happen actually diminishes very quickly.
NNAMDIA whole slew a voter laws, Barbara Arnwine...
NNAMDI...in a number of states where one of the biggest changes in this election. What effect did the new rules have?
ARNWINEOh, they caused mass confusion. What happened was that, for most listeners, in 2011 -- between 2011 and the Election Day, 2012, some eight states passed new voter suppression legislation that basically require that voters would have to produce a governmentally-issued photo identification, which most of the times meant...
NNAMDIThe states, I should point out, did not refer to them as voter suppression laws...
NNAMDIThey called it voter ID law.
ARNWINEBut I call it call it voter suppression laws…
NNAMDII know you do.
ARNWINE…'cause that's what they did. But -- that's what they're intended to do, I think, too. And the laws were, you know, almost uniformly, you know, very problematic because they were designed to "fight voter fraud" but, of course, they -- there was not evidence that were introduced that they had voter impersonation fraud in those states.
ARNWINEBut the problem was that the majority of people of color and -- I mean, not the majority but huge numbers, big percentages cycle. Over 20 percent of people of color have no such governmentally-issued Department of Motor Vehicle ID or a driver's license or a non-driver's license and therefore did not have that kind of ID nor the poor people nor the seniors nor did young voters nor did people with disabilities. So it was very adverse kind of law.
ARNWINEFortunately, of those eight laws that were passed, because of our litigation, because of the pre-clearance requirements of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and because of other, you know, failures within the -- meeting state constitutional law, six of those laws were not in effect during this election. However, voters and poll workers were confused, and they thought the laws were in effect, and Pennsylvania...
NNAMDIThey had situations where poll workers in Pennsylvania were asking for them to show two pieces of ID when, in fact, none were required.
ARNWINEAnd not only that, they were telling people that if they did not have the ID, they could not vote. That was the real problem.
ARNWINEThey were allowed to ask for, it but they were -- to have people show it at least if they had it, but they would still required to give them a regular ballot and let them vote. But, instead, they were telling people they could not vote and sending them home.
NNAMDIDavid, there's been a lot of vocal debate about voter fraud and counter-concerns, as Barbara just pointed out, about voter suppression, how do we sort out what's really happening?
BECKERWell, I mean, the research is fairly clear. There doesn't appear to be any research to support the idea that there's systemic voter fraud going on in the United States. With regard to voter suppression and then particularly the impact of the voter ID laws in this election cycle, I think the jury is still out. I think we're going to take a very close look at the data that comes from provisional ballots in the states where it was implemented and see how many of them were issued as a result of ID, and we'll get a much better idea at that point what the actual impact was.
BECKERClearly, this is a -- there are very strong ideological divisions on these points. And one of the things that we have tried to find is: where is their common ground? Of course, everyone wants to make sure, I think, that all eligible voters can vote, but only eligible voters can vote. And that's very important. And there are ways -- we've talked a lot about improving the voter list and finding better ways to keep those up to date, for instance. There are ways that you can serve both goals.
BECKERWe helped seven states partner together, including some swing states like Nevada and Colorado and Virginia and Maryland, Delaware and Utah and Washington as well, to better share data, better identify people who might be moving so that they can correct that information, start the process of cleaning up those records but also identify people who are eligible but are not yet registered and invite them...
NNAMDIAnd there's some 50 million of them across the United States, it's my understanding...
ARNWINEMore than, I guess. Mm hmm.
NNAMDI...50 million citizens who are eligible but not registered. Go ahead.
BECKERThat's exactly right. Based on our research, about one in four eligible Americans is not on the rolls. And so states are looking to both find ways to make their voter list more accurate and up to date but also find ways to get more of the eligible voter community on to them at the same time. If they can do both in tandem, then this solves some of the ideological divisions that we see.
NNAMDIHere is Peter in Annapolis, Md. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETERWell, Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I voted in Annapolis on the sixth, and my wife voted earlier in the week. I think it was on a Saturday. We had early voting here, and the lines were humongous.
NNAMDII saw some of them, yes.
PETERThey were. They were humongous on both days. She waited in line for three hours at (unintelligible) voting precinct. When I voted, the lines were not quite so bad at the time I voted. But they had been very, very busy before that. I think one of the reasons in Maryland for the delay was the -- were the number of issues.
NNAMDIThere were a lot of initiatives on the Maryland ballot having to do with everything from whether or not there should be casino gambling ultimately in Prince George's County to whether or not the DREAM Act would get approved. And, of course, they voted just about all of them approved. But in Florida, it was an even bigger nightmare for most people because, as you've pointed out, David, earlier -- or you did, Thomas -- the fact it just took so long for people to vote. Is there anything concealable that can be recommended about that, Barbara Arnwine?
ARNWINEWell, one of the problems in Maryland this time was not only did we have all of these amendments, and in Florida, they had a really long ballot and so did California, et cetera, but one of the big differences was that in 2008, I have in my household six registered voters. Each and every one of us received our own separate sample ballot in 2008. This year, they sent two sample ballots to our household, and it was -- and they were titled not by our names.
ARNWINEThey were titled voting members of the household at, you know, X address. So not everybody had their own ballot that they could mark, read and mark and take with them 'cause not all of us, you know, vote the same way. And it was fascinating that that was one of the things I saw. So a big problem, again, is this underinvestment, not sending enough educational materials out. Plus even I had to sit down, before I voted, the day before, and it took me two hours to figure out my vote on the Maryland ballot because there wasn't, even with the descriptions that they had, there wasn't sufficient information.
ARNWINESo I still had to go on the Internet and research these initiatives to understand what was the best way to vote. So I think that's -- you know, that just shows you, you know, just part of the, you know, obstacles and challenges for voters, especially when you get down ballot and you're talking about judges and you're talking about courts of -- you know, the orphan courts and all the rest of the kind of initiatives that were there. So I just think it's very, very important. But one thing I did want to say about the voter rolls: guess what would make all the difference in the world.
ARNWINEThe most simple thing we could do is do what North Carolina and 12 -- and 10 other states, about 11 other states do, and that is they have what's called Election Day registration, and many of them have had it for decades. And what it basically allows you to do is to actually register the same day you vote. And, guess what, of the 90,000 calls that we received from -- throughout the United States, the fewest calls came from Election Day registration states because 90 percent of all the problems that people encounter are voter registration-related.
ARNWINEAnd when you have EDR, none of this matters. It doesn't matter if you've been purged. It doesn't matter if your name isn't on the rolls. It doesn't matter. It is, without question, one of the best voter reforms out there.
NNAMDIAnd EDR meaning Election Day registration.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about why some international observers were threatened with arrest in some states. But you can call us at 800-433-8850. If the phones are busy, send us an email to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow. Do you think election should be a holiday or held on Sundays? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with election observers of election 2012. David Becker is the director of Election Initiatives for the Pew Center on the States. Barbara Arnwine is the president and executive director of The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She also leads Election Protection, the nation's largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition that was launched in 2004 to assist historically disenfranchised persons to exercise the right to vote.
NNAMDIAnd Thomas Rymer is the spokesperson for the long-term election observation mission with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Thomas, many people think of international election monitors as needed in new democracies or those struggling with -- under autocratic rulers. But your organization has been observing elections in the U.S. since 2002. How did that come about?
RYMERWell, it came about essentially -- the United States is one of the founding members of the OSCE and is one of the participating states in the organization that came up with commitments among the participating states in the early 1990s and has been a strong proponent of these commitments in exactly the countries you're talking about. And this is why we're talking about the 1990s. This is happening with the fall of the wall and with -- you end up with transition governments.
RYMERNow the thing is the United States itself is very active in sending international observers to elections all across the OSCE region. At the same time, our office and an idea that, again, came from the U.S. itself with the sharing of good practices, and also with the fact that there's no election that's perfect. You basically have observers come in. They look at the process regardless what country it is. And if no election is perfect, there are always recommendations that could be made to approve the process. So I think it's kind of a two-track thing for the United States.
NNAMDII thought the fact that you came in 2002 had to do with the debacle in Florida in 2000.
RYMERDirectly, the decision where it came from -- the thing was we tended not to move into -- we concentrated, I think, our office in the countries you talked about -- new democracies, fledgling democracies where the case is. And our office, when established in 1991, was relatively small from a budgetary standpoint.
RYMERNow as this idea that it just made sense to have reciprocity, if you like, and to have observation happening, as many participating states as possible, our budget has grown. Our office has grown. And we found it possible to come to elections like this one where maybe that wasn't the attention that was being paid in 1991, for example.
NNAMDIThere were issues this time around when several states barred your organization from observing at the polls, that Texas being the most vocal. Can you talk a little bit about that?
RYMERWell, the specific problem this one around I think you hit on when you said being the most vocal because this is not new. And we've discussed earlier that there are 51, sorry, different elections going on here at the time and that it's a state. It's the local jurisdiction, whether it be the District of Columbia, the 50 states that have these laws. And there are a number of states -- Texas, you mentioned, Iowa -- who explicitly, in their legislation, preclude international observers...
RYMER...from entering polling stations. In Texas, the language is maintaining a presence within 100 feet of the entry of a polling station. There are others where, because there aren't explicit provisions made to allow observers in, then it comes down to the interpretation of the chief law enforcement agent of the state who is the attorney general, as we discovered in Texas.
RYMERAnd it can cause some confusion for -- also because whereas the chief electoral officer in any state is the secretary of state, then you sometimes end up with situations where these two don't agree. Now, the thing is this is nothing new for us. We've noted this in previous reports that state laws, in this case, aren't in line with what the United States has made as commitments to allow international observers to come observe their elections, the entire process.
NNAMDITexas says, not in here.
NNAMDIAnother organization, David and Barbara, myfairelection.com, collects information from citizens on their voting experience in order to rate different polling places. The hope is to call out poorly run districts. How else can officials in charge of the process be held accountable?
BECKERWell, Kojo, I think, first of all, one of the ways that we need to hold them accountable is we got -- we need to get better data. We need to have better datas that we can measure how well different states and within those states, the jurisdictions within those states are performing in elections amongst a whole variety of factors. Not just long lines, but are there -- are they only giving provisional ballots to those who really need them, and are they then counting most of those provisional ballots, for instance?
BECKERDo voters have the information they need when they go to the polls so they're going to the correct polling place at the time? There are a variety of factors. And, in fact, one of the things we're working on Pew in partnership with many states is to try to come up with a way to create an index where we'll actually be able to measure the states on how well they're administering elections. You know, it's not just how well the process goes on Election Day, but are states getting bang for their buck?
BECKERAre they spending the right amount of money? There's -- there are probably jurisdictions out there that spend a lot of money with very low performance. And a lot of jurisdictions do remarkably good job with very little money. So one of the things we want to do is to highlight those that have -- do have good practices. Because I can tell you in talking with election officials, they want to learn. They want to develop best practices. They want to avoid these kinds of problems.
NNAMDIAnd, Barbara, it's my understanding that your organization, in order to address the large roll structure -- the largest structural problems in the system, is talking about election reform legislation.
ARNWINEYes. We're really advocating strongly. In addition for Election Day registration, we're also arguing for what's called automatic voter registration. And that is that we have sufficient information in the United States about who's in our country, who has reached the majority age based on high school, Social Security, all kind of other data, where we can actually create registration for our citizens without putting onus on individuals to register themselves by going to the, you know, the Board of Registration, filing a third-party group or whatever and then having all these fights about who's...
NNAMDIAARP always knows when we turn 50.
ARNWINERight. I mean, yeah, exactly. But also, you know, my son turned 18. Within four months of his turning 18, we received in the mail his Selective Service number. He could have received the voting card, too. There is no reason why we can't do it. We could do that for women. We could do it for everybody in our nation. And a lot of nations do that. They take the responsibility of creating their own voter registration roles for the citizens, and then citizens can determine if they want to vote or not.
ARNWINEBut the reality here is that there -- that would be a great reform because that once again would take a lot of these problems. I also think another really needed reform that we haven't talked about is anti-deceptive practices and anti-intimidation laws. There are such laws in Minnesota. There are such laws in other states. But what we have seen is proliferation of private actors getting into the game of deceiving voters such as the calls that happened in...
ARNWINEExactly -- Indiana. But also this year, they went to a more sophisticated method. They actually set up call centers where they had live people calling folks saying, you're such a great voter because of your history of voting and because of confessing at the polls. We want to offer you the option of voting by phone. They were allegedly taking down ballots and submitting them and telling people, thank you. Now, you don't have to worry about Election Day.
ARNWINEThat is absolutely devious, absolutely undemocratic and should be unlawful. But, guess what, a lot of states don't have laws addressing that as an illegal activity, nor have fines, punishments, et cetera. We also saw this year a number of voter challenger groups, mainly led by Tea Party affiliates, that were threatening to challenge voters.
ARNWINEAnd indeed, we sent a letter to the Department of Justice on Monday asking for them to intervene and to investigate and intervene in a threatened voter challenge in Allegheny County in Pittsburgh where we saw that the jurisdictions that they had selected -- this Tea Party group had selected to target were all -- were something like 75, 80 percent African-Americans. So we said it was racially discriminatory.
NNAMDIDavid, why are elections more efficient in, say, European countries? Is there anything we might be able to adopt to learn from them?
BECKERWell, I think, you know, one of the advantages many European countries have, of course, is they have a parliamentary system. So the ballot can be very short because you're essentially just voting for a party, and then you let your party representative vote for everything else.
BECKERWe have a tradition in this country of more direct democracy, some states more than others. Some states put -- you know, ask anyone who's lived in California, like I have, and there'll be a dozen to 24 ballot initiatives in any given major election. That takes time. I mean, we've -- we as a society, I think, have made a decision that that's worth it, that we want that level of democracy.
BECKERBut I think what's important now -- we have the tools to harness technology better to provide more information to voters before Election Day so that they -- when they go into Election Day, they're just completing a transaction, not conducting a whole transaction. In -- so through things, like the partnership that Pew has with Google and Microsoft and Facebook with the Voting Information Project -- and Election Protection was a partner in this as well --we can help provide information on what's on the ballot well in advance.
BECKERThey can go directly to mobile devices, for instance, or you can get on the Internet. You can even find out whether you need ID through these tools. For instance, 22 million people used the tool we partner with Google on, Google's tool on Election Day.
NNAMDII was going to ask you about that but didn't have time.
BECKERAnd those kinds of things, you know, now that we're entering into the 21st century, the technological age, we can harness those tools and find better ways to provide the information to voters.
NNAMDISpeaking of the technological age, John in Fairfax, Va., has a question about that. John, your turn.
JOHNYou know, Kojo, we can vote online, or we can register to vote online. We can bank online. We pay our taxes online. What are the impediments to voting online?
BECKERWell, most computer scientists believe we're not quite ready for that yet. One of the big challenges, and I think most people will understand this, is with all of those transactions, it's very important that you'd be able to draw a line directly between that transaction right to a person. You'd be -- you have to able to trace it to the person who originated that transaction. Voting is different as we have discussed. I mean, voting is a secret transaction. It's supposed to be.
BECKERYou're not supposed to be able to know that this ballot represented what another person did. And so it's very hard to create a system that has integrity, is fully auditable so you make sure the ballots are counted as they should and that also can't be traced back to a person who originally cast the ballot. It may be that in the next 20, 30 years, we can find a system to do that, but it's a challenge.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Dave in Calvert County, Md., who writes, "I understand Oregon and maybe a few other states have a mail ballot system. Is that a possibility to avoid all the hassles we've seen?"
ARNWINEAbsolutely. I mean, mail ballot is another, you know, system that is allowed in Oregon, and also, we saw it this time. You know, what I thought was very fascinating in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was to watch what New Jersey and New York did. I mean, all of a sudden, they changed, you know, a lot of rules. And one was allowing people to use an email, you know, ballot system. So there's a lot of options that we should keep exploring. And that's the beauty of what Pew does.
ARNWINEAnd that's the beauty of what Election Protection. And so many of us do is that we do look for these best, you know, options, best systems to make the system more accessible to voters and to give voters the ability to really participate. And I think that that's, you know, wonderful. And I just want to really say one of the beauties of this year, was the voter's determination to vote. The fact that people did stay in lines for seven hours or five hours or two and three hours is a real reflection that the spirit of our democracy really is in the hearts of the people and in their determination to vote.
NNAMDIAnd we got this email from Sue, "It really blows my mind that so many people had to wait many hours to vote when, every year when I vote in Columbia, there's hardly a line. And this year, there was no line at all, not one person in front of me at the checking desk. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that there is integrity in the election, does it?"
RYMERIt doesn't. And, actually, to go back to this question about Internet voting...
NNAMDIAnd we got about 15 seconds.
RYMERI'll go very quickly. I think David pointed out one important thing to make sure that there is a direct line from the person to vote. The other thing is the confidence for the voter that in electronic -- because there's a detachment. They're filling out a paper and putting it in. And whether that's the case of overcoming that with people just getting used to it or finding some way that they have something in their hand that gives them confidence...
RYMER...that the button they pushed worked.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Elizabeth, who said, "Although I do respect the elderly, I found the volunteers were quite old, and having more young folks and better training might speed things along." Elizabeth, you're messing with my retirement plan. Thomas Rymer, David Becker, Barbara Arnwine, thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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