TERRY GROSS, host:
With the election just one week away, both parties have raised concerns about potential voting irregularities. In recent weeks, Republicans have warned of massive vote fraud from the grassroots group ACORN, which has turned in over a million new voter registration applications around the country. Democrats counter that the charges against ACORN are a manufactured scare campaign designed to lay the basis for challenging Democratic voters in key states. They say Republicans themselves are engaged in a wide range of voter suppression tactics. Meanwhile, others warned that a combination of new registrations, heavy turn-out, and new or inadequate voting systems could lead to long lines and other problems on election day.
For some perspective, we've turned to Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections, which is part of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The campaign will staff a national voter hotline and have lawyers in 45 locations on election day to answer voters' question and respond to problems. Goldman spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Jonah Goldman, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's talk about some of the things that people have been reading about in the campaign. One of them is the charge by Republicans and John McCain that ACORN - this community group is an acronym which stands for, I guess, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, they've been conducting mass registration drives throughout the country. And the Republicans say that they are deliberately turning in fraudulent registrations, presumably to get phony votes cast. And John McCain said that they are, quote, "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." What's your take on what ACORN is up to?
Mr. JONAH GOLDMAN (Lawyer, National Campaign for Fair Elections): Well, I think it's unfortunate. You know, the facts are out there about this. I think that that kind of language is just incendiary, and I don't think that it's very helpful. There is certainly a problem with turning in false voter registration forms, and that has been a problem in this cycle.
But with that problem is is that it puts a burden on election officials that are administering a historic registration right now. This puts an additional burden, where they now have to sift through these cards to determine whether somebody is or isn't eligible, but there is absolutely no evidence, and, in fact, people have looked into this time and time again, there is no evidence that any of these folks end up coming to the polls and voting.
And there is a reason for that. The motivation behind submitting a false voter registration card is often to get paid by the registration organization that you're working for, which is obviously a significantly different motivation than going to a polling place and risking 10 years in prison to change one vote. It's really not that the false registrations turn into false votes at the polling place, but what this is doing is really creating sort of chaos and confusion at the local level, possibly leading to things like voter challenges at the polls, and what that's going to do is put an additional weight onto an already overstressed system that we just don't need right now.
DAVIS: Let's go back over a couple of things you said. You said there's no evidence that these people actually turn up and vote at the polls. Now, that's obviously not from this election. You're referring to what - the primary that we just saw in the spring or the election of 2004?
Mr. GOLDMAN: There has been a lot of research into this from elections for the past 10 or 15 years. There's been - there have been problems in the past with turning in false voter registration forms, and there's been an effort to look into it both from the Justice Department, from independent groups, from local enforcement to see if these voters ever turned out, and, in fact, they don't.
That's not to say that it's never happened. What it is to say is that - I think that the last study that looked into it found that - they looked specifically at Ohio, and in the, I don't know, 10-15 million votes that were cast in the past two or three presidential elections, they found evidence of seven voters, that's seven just single digit, seven voters who may have cast, you know, ineligible ballots, which puts your chances of finding somebody who's committed this type of voter fraud around the same as your chances of getting struck by lightning.
DAVIS: And in the - you mentioned that what ACORN does, does create additional work and burdens on local elected officials who have to process all these voter registration applications. Most of the problematic registrations, though, really aren't fraudulent as much as duplicates, right? I mean, their cases were an already registered voter has signed up again because an ACORN volunteer met him on the street, and they said I've just got be sure that I'm registered, right?
Mr. GOLDMAN: Oh, absolutely. There are plenty of those, and that's certainly no faults of ACORN's or any other community organization, you know. I think that what we have to understand about this, and, you know, some of the other things we've already been talking about today is that this is a system that is good but certainly can be better. There is no reason why we have to leave it to these community groups to do a lot of the great work that they do in registering voters.
This should be the responsibility of the government to register voters, and it's not that hard to do, and it's not that expensive to do it. It's a lot more efficient to do it. It takes out the risk of the people who are going to show up at the polls on election day and not be on the registration list because of backlogs of voter registration, and it also takes out any risk at all of this type of in-person voter fraud. It really is the direction we should be moving into. We need to reform the system, and then we can really sort of get over these kinds of conversations every four years. I may be out a job, but I'm happy to be.
DAVIS: I want to talk about some of the reforms you propose in a couple minutes. Now, a lot of Democrats have been complaining that Republicans are trying to strike voters from the rolls, and there have been actions by election officials in a lot of places, maybe motivated by Republicans, maybe not. One of the things that we're seeing is some places where election officials take their lists of registered voters and then match them against other government lists like Social Security lists or driver's license lists and when they discovered a discrepancy do something about it, take them off the rolls, file a challenge. Tell us what's happening there and how troubled we should be about it?
Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, I think that it's a new issue this year that largely came up because these databases, the statewide voter registration databases are relatively new. They first came online across the country in 2006, so this is the first big election. I think that we're worried about it because we've seen a lot of activity, and one of the problems with this matching is that the government databases don't match so closely with the voter registration database, so often, there are false positives, people who don't come up as a match between these two databases, but are, in fact, who they say they are. They live where they say they are. They continue to be living, breathing American citizens who are eligible to vote.
DAVIS: When you say a false positive, one database has the middle initial, the other doesn't, and therefore, they flag it? Is that what you mean?
Mr. GOLDMAN: That's right, or one database has - or when somebody has been keying in a voter registration card, they invert a couple of letters, so there's not a direct match there. There's a lot of different reasons why there are matching problems or not, you know. One of the reasons why this matching process is often a first step to determining eligibility but certainly by no means the last step and certainly shouldn't be like what we're seeing the discussion is in Ohio right now. It certainly shouldn't be the case that 200,000 names that don't match a government database are either flagged or taken off the rolls or subject to challenge when we know that, often, these matches are so faulty that sometimes 20, 30, or 40 percent of the matches are false positives.
DAVIS: Well, what exactly is happening in Ohio?
Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, right now, what's happening is the Ohio Republican Party basically tried to get the secretary of state to give out the names of - to the local election officials of the 200,000 people who have come back as a no match on one of these various databases, and there was litigation that actually went all the way up to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court basically said that the Ohio Republican Party doesn't really have grounds to stand and challenge this decision by the secretary of state.
DAVIS: But you're a nonpartisan group, but Democrat's are saying that these are things that Republicans are doing because they want, you know, fewer people able to vote. Are they right?
Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, first of all, I think some of the accusations about people being removed out of voter registration rolls at a time period when they shouldn't be removed off of voter registration rolls is an equal opportunity assessment. I think that there are Republican and Democrat chief election officials that are potentially at risk of this, and I say this sort of in a way not to be cagey, but just because we're not sure what the details are of a lot of these long removals. But I think that the broader point is that no party has a monopoly on bad acts related to elections. They both are - both parties have their initial interest in getting their guy elected.
We've already seen this happening in Ohio, with the Democratic secretary of state trying to reject absentee ballots because a relatively superfluous box wasn't checked by the people who are requesting absentee ballots, and these were an absentee ballot forms that were produced by the McCain campaign. And then, at the same time in Colorado, you have a Republican secretary of state trying to reject voter registrations because people didn't check - this is becoming a theme - people didn't check a superfluous box on those voter registration forms. It really is, from a candidate level and from a party level, it's really all about getting someone elected.
DAVIS: We're speaking with Jonah Goldman. He's the director of the National Campaign for a Fair Elections. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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DAVIS: If you're just joining us, our guest is Jonah Goldman, he's the director of the National Campaign for a Fair Elections in the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights under voting laws, Voting Rights Project. If you had the chance to craft some - a new election law or at least proposals for Congress to consider about what ought to be changed. Let's take one area, registration. What should be done there, voter registration?
Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, we should move to a system of universal voter registration. Basically, what that means is that we should transfer the responsibility from the voter to the government. We do this in a lot of different places. It may sound like we're proposing some big new government program where we're not, I mean, we do this in a lot of places. 18-year-old men register for Selective Service, for instance, and the Selective Service system can find them if they don't register. We have high school rolls. We have tax rolls. There's a lot of these list.
These lists that are imperfect, and there needs to be a lot of safeguards to make sure people are put on the list, and those are the people who are actually eligible voters. But what we should be doing is focusing on putting people on the list, doing it in a relatively constant way so we're not focusing just on registration deadlines, and then providing a backstop for voters at the polls who don't show up on the list.
If we do that, we do a couple of things. Number one, we remove third-party registration groups from the process. That means that we don't have to worry about these stories about ACORN, and we don't have to worry about whether or not registration groups are sending registration cards to the right election official versus the wrong election officials. The state really would have control over that, so that's the first thing that it would do.
And then the second thing it would do is, it will allow people who get engaged in the process late to still be in the rolls. They don't have to worry about these 30-day voter registration deadlines. You know, when we're talking about this - this incredibly heartening new generation of political advocacy that we see through the young voters that are going to be turning out this election season, a lot of them don't understand why they have to register 30 days before they vote. They've never had to register for anything 30 days before. They click a mouse, and everything is sort of instantaneous.
We don't need for that to happen. It's an arcane structure that's an obstacle to the ballot box, and we could take that away. Election Protection, that coalition that we lead at the Lawyer's Committee, finds that, on election day and before election day, about 30 to 40 percent of the problems that we get from voters, even at the polling place, are actually related to registration. We can wipe those out if we significantly reform our registration process.
DAVIS: Briefly, what are some of the other changes you would make in the way we conduct elections?
Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, I think one thing we need is we need to have a good deceptive practices prevention act that will prevent these deceptive practices that are happening every year. We need to be really creative about how we recruit, train, and deploy poll workers. Right now, the average age of poll workers in the country is somewhere hovering around 72, and I know a lot of my colleagues who are recruiting, training, and deploying college poll workers, which means that there's people on the other end of the age spectrum that are averaging the average age of 72, and what we need to do is make sure that we don't put all of the burden on the senior community. Instead, what we need to do is be creative with things like public, private partnerships, with using government workers as poll workers, with having more sophisticated training structures for poll workers. That's going to solve a whole lot of our problems.
And then, the last area that I think we should address is things like early voting and absentee voting. There is no reason why we should be confined to 13 hours on a single day in the middle of the week to be able to vote. We should have as many options as possible for eligible voters to be able to go out and cast a ballot. It's the way that we need to be.
The only reason why we cast a ballot on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November is because of an arcane law that was passed by the Congress in the 19th century that we wanted to make sure that growers could get in from their farms into the town to be able to cast the ballot, and it was far enough away from Sunday, where it was the Sabbath, and it was close enough to the day of market, and it was after the harvest. I mean, these kinds of considerations are obviously less important in a situation where we are all driving our cars and flying on our planes and not having to take the horse and buggy into the town center.
DAVIS: Well, Jonah Goldman, good luck on election day. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. GOLDMAN: Thanks, Dave.
GROSS: Jonah Goldman is the director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections, which is part of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davis, who is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. You can download podcast of our show in our website freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.