< The Ballot Beat


Friday, October 27, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: The media say that the midterm election will serve as a referendum on the war and on the leadership in Washington. But voters can't cast ballots reflecting their doubts about voting, and the media suggests there's plenty to doubt. In the six years since the Supreme Court determined that George Bush would be President, problems ranging from voter suppression to the easy manipulation of electronic voting machines have not been solved. Here's CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER: When it comes to casting your vote in the ever-growing electronic age, some are deeply concerned right now about massive errors or even stolen votes.

BOB GARFIELD: There is a fine line between information and fear-mongering, and the way the problem is framed could determine whether voters go to the polls. Michael Waldman is the executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. He's concerned, and he joins me now. Michael, welcome to OTM.


BOB GARFIELD: In October, the Brennan Center held a briefing for reporters. What, first of all, were you trying to tell the media?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Well, what we were hoping that we could do in talking to the media was to show how, for all the focus that happens on election day, with all the kinds of shenanigans and voter suppression and people being told wrong polling places or told to vote the next day, that the real voter suppression that happens very often happens not just in November, but in October and September and year round.

BOB GARFIELD: From the questions that the reporters raised at this briefing, were you able to divine whether their understanding of what's important and newsworthy corresponds with your thoughts on the subject?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Many of the questions were about voter fraud. And I think that one of the things that has happened is the media, admirably, is covering this issue now. It's admirably covering the mechanics of democracy. But there's sometimes a false equivalence based on charges from one side or another. The other day, the Note, which is the publication of ABC News, its political section, said that one of the ways you can tell that the mainstream media has a liberal bias is if it gives more attention to voter suppression than to voter fraud. Well, the only problem with that is that, in fact, there's plenty of evidence of voter suppression and precious little evidence of actual voter fraud. It's like what Stephen Colbert said, which is sometimes the facts have a bias.

BOB GARFIELD: Hm. Now, the idea of fraud still lives especially on the Internet, in the blogosphere. There's essentially two sets of charges -- from the left, the idea that electronic voting machines can be rigged and the implication that they have been rigged, and from the political right, the idea that the Democrats are busing in, say, illegal aliens to vote Democratic and deprive Republicans of their seats in Congress and so forth. Is there any evidence out there in recent history of either of those kinds of voter fraud actually having taken place?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Well, in terms of the kind of allegation of voter fraud where somebody's voting who's not supposed to be voting, you often see news articles recycling the same examples. There was a person in Ohio who registered to vote under the name of Jive Turkey, and you can find that many, many times on the blogosphere and in news coverage. But Mr. Turkey has not actually ever showed up to vote. [BOB LAUGHS] He did register, but he didn't show up to vote. In terms of whether there's potential fraud and hacking in electronic systems, we don't know. That's a more complex and real challenge. These electronic systems are being used now for the first time by 80 percent of voters. The Brennan Center, the group I run, actually convened a task force of computer scientists from inside and outside the government, and we looked at this, and said, well, could you really hack these machines? And it actually turns out you can, quite easily. What this group of scientists concluded is you could walk in with a Palm Pilot and steal a Senate election. So we, of course, don't know if it's happened before, but it is a very legitimate concern going forward.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, the question of voter suppression is different, because on that, there is a vast paper trial, because a lot of it was done via legislation, some of which has and some of which hasn't been overturned by the courts. Do you believe the coverage, historically, of attempts at voter suppression has been up to snuff?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: It's been very spotty. You have situations - for example, in Florida and Ohio and a number of other key states in 2004, there was a real upsurge in voting. Many people of color, many young people voted for the first time, and they were registered to vote by non-profit groups. Well, the state legislatures in Florida and Ohio and elsewhere cracked down on this terrible social problem of people voting by passing Draconian laws that made it a crime, in effect, to make a mistake in turning in a voter registration form. Federal courts have found repeatedly in Florida and Ohio that this is not just a bad idea, not just bad policy, but it's illegal. It's unconstitutional. The press hasn't really gone behind this to say, well, why is this happening? Who's behind it? Why is this popping up in state after state, and why is this part of somebody's strategy? I think that there's been occasionally good coverage, but the dots have not been connected.

BOB GARFIELD: Who's done a good job on this?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: The New York Times has done quite a bit of work. There are newspapers such as USA Today that have done a very good job on electronic voting. And some newspapers have done a terrific job at actually digging in and looking at the allegations of fraud and finding that they're not what they're cracked up to be. There's a blog called BradBlog which is a tremendous repository of information about voting. It's where a lot of the activists and experts go to look. But there's much more that could be done. And, you know, believe me that right now there are people sitting in offices, trying to figure out how to keep people from voting, and it's something that the media can do, to try and open those doors and find out who they are and why they're doing this and what they're up to.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, Michael, thank you very much.


BOB GARFIELD: Michael Waldman is the executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]