Copyright ©2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca.

Examine the NFL rulebook and you'll encounter the tuck rule. This quirky little clause concerns a quarterback pumping to throw then bringing the ball back, thereby establishing his intention to scramble. If it seems a little arcane to you, it did to the NFL as well. That is until the procedural nuances had a huge impact on a critical playoff game. At that point, every player, ref, and fan woke up to the strange workings of the tuck rule. It's the same with elections.

In 2000, when the presidential race came down to a few 100 votes, people took notice. Hey this whole foundation of democracy thing isn't as efficient as say, I don't know, ordering a tankini from Lands End. This past midterm elections had a mixed record for voting accuracy. An organization called Electionline. org tracked them all. Douglas Chapin is Election Line's director; he joins me now from our Washington studios.

Welcome to DAY TO DAY, Doug.

Mr. DOUGLAS CHAPIN (Director, Electionline.org): Thank you Mike.

PESCA: Would you say that what I said is true - that people don't tend to get up in arms over election accuracy and fairness until they convince themselves that their candidate may be getting the shaft, or the chad, as the case may be?

Mr. CHAPIN: That's definitely the case. That people really don't pay attention to elections or election problems until they've really got a dog in the fight and usually a candidate who has come up just short on Election Day.

PESCA: So let's hopscotch around the country a little bit. I know you looked at all the states, can you pick a few and explain what went wrong, or if you want what went right.

Mr. CHAPIN: What went wrong, Florida once again is in the headlines. Sarasota congressional race decided by fewer than 400 votes with 1800 blank ballots on touch screen machines. In Denver, Colorado an experiment with Election Day vote centers, which were supposed to make voting more convenient ended up in lines of more than two hours long and people quitting the line in frustration. In New Mexico, in Massachusetts, even in California there were places that simply ran out of paper ballots. Or in California's case, English-speaking voters were given paper ballots in Vietnamese and other languages.

PESCA: You know how the issue of corporate corruption's a little abstract and then you hear something like Dennis Kozlowski got a $6000 shower curtain and it just comes into focus for you. Your report had a few of those little details like maybe you can talk about there was a squirrel in Oklahoma or an oversleeping poll worker in North Carolina or even fat fingers are said to have caused some election disruptions.

Mr. CHAPIN: Yeah, one of the reasons that all of us at Election Line, and me especially as sort of the chief election geek in house, we love elections because of those kinds of stories. You have squirrels chewing through power lines; we had a fistfight in Kentucky when a poll worker tried to force a voter to vote in a number of judicial elections. We even had an angry voter in Allentown, Pennsylvania smash a touch screen machine with a metal cat paperweight. You really can't make this stuff up.

PESCA: I'm sure that you hear this argument all the time which is that you can't expect perfection, and that with every system no matter how well designed there are some failures built in. What do you say to that?

Mr. CHAPIN: I think that's true, but I think it's important to remember that any problem is an unacceptable problem. Some of them are unavoidable given the millions of people who go out to the polls every election day. The goal is to identify problems that you can prevent in advance and do so and then do the best you can to address problems that you didn't foresee.

PESCA: Well Election Line has a grant to study election problems and they'll always find them, they won't make them up but they're out there. But at what point do you say you know this is really still very bad or are you saying it's actually getting a little bit better?

Mr. CHAPIN: When you look at elections we really have two reasons for elections. The first is the very simple picking winners and losers. Who's going to lead the next government, which question won? And on that we had a generally successful election day with the exception of the Sarasota congressional race and maybe Denver. The results were clean.

The other interest though is for individual voters feel like they had a voice in the process. And given the kinds of problems that we've talked about today and others that are in our report, it wasn't as successful on election day for individual voters and when individual voters lose faith in that first interest, that the winners and losers were fairly chosen, then we've got a real problem. I think the system is not fixed until a significant number of the voters believe that even if their candidate lost that the process worked for them.

PESCA: Is it a case of 50 states, 50 problems or is there one form of voting device that fails more often than others?

Mr. CHAPIN: There isn't one that fails more often than others. I think that the one thing that we've learned since 2000 is there is no silver bullet. There is no one perfect voting system. For every advantage that a touch screen machine has in terms of flexibility for voters with disabilities or an optical scan machine has by being paper based, there are also disadvantages. The lack of auditability or the problems of mis-marked ballots. The trick is to find the best fit between systems and communities and that's really where election officials and policy makers have to do the heavy lifting.

PESCA: Douglas Chapin the director of Electionline.org thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. CHAPIN: My pleasure.

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