We speak with New York Times editorial writer Adam Cohen about voter suppression and fraud in the 2004 election. From U.S. soldiers being told to use non-secret ballots to the Pentagon counting the votes of the military and U.S. citizens living abroad. From partisan secretaries of state overseeing the election to Homeland Security preventing new U.S. citizens from registering and much more. [includes rush transcript]
One week from today, millions of American will enter the polls in one of the most hotly fought presidential races in U.S. history. Already thousands of people of begun voting in some two dozen states. And as some predict an unusually high voter turnout, there are widespread concerns of all votes being counted and the possibility of a fair election:
In Florida, the Department of Homeland Security said new U.S. citizens could not register to vote on the sidewalk outside where they were being sworn in.
The Pentagon is telling soldiers to send non-secret ballots by email to be counted by an outsourced firm.
Thousands of GOP election challengers will be placed at polling places across the country to question voter eligibility.
And electronic voting machines will count nearly a third of this year’s votes–all without a paper trail.
Today, one week before the November 2nd election, we continue to look at issues of voter protection.
- Adam Cohen, editorial writer for The New York Times. He has been traveling across the country ahead of next week’s presidential election monitoring voting problems. He is leading The New York Times special coverage called “Making Votes Count.”
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Adam Cohen, editorial writer for The New York Times. He has been traveling around the country ahead of next week’s presidential election, monitoring voting problems. He is the leading New York Times special — he’s leading The New York Times coverage called “Making Votes Count.” Welcome to Democracy Now!
ADAM COHEN: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t we start off with just a list of what you consider are the major concerns right now. Can you begin in South Dakota?
ADAM COHEN: Sure. South Dakota is, as we know, a very important state for the U.S. Senate this year. There’s a race between Tom Daschle, majority leader and a very competitive republican. The last Senate race in South Dakota in 2002 was decided by about 500 votes, and the margin actually turned up late on election night from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. So there’s a big focus in the state on the Indian vote, particularly by republicans, because the Indians vote heavily democratic. What we have seen in South Dakota over the last couple of years, is really, I would say, a concerted effort to suppress the Indian vote through voter I.D. rules, a new law and unfair enforcement of voter I.D. requirements at the polls.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by voter I.D. and what this new law is.
ADAM COHEN: Sure, when you go to vote, there are different rules in different states as to whether or not you need to bring I.D. with you. In New York State, you don’t. You just sign your name, and if the signature matches, you’re allowed to vote. Other states have passed voter I.D. laws, which require you to have some form of I.D., in some cases, photo I.D. In South Dakota after that very close Senate race in 2002, the state legislature passed a new voter I.D. law that required everyone to bring I.D. with them at the polls, but it had an out. It said if you don’t have your I.D. with you, you’re allowed to fill out an affidavit saying who you are and that you’ll also be allowed to vote. The problem is, Indians said although that’s in the law, they’re still going to try to stop us from voting. They’re not going to let us use that affidavit ballot. I was there in April and Indians were saying to me, “Watch, they’re not going to let us vote in June and in November.” Sure enough, in June, a number of Indians who tried to vote in a very close congressional race there were turned away and told that they needed I.D. And even when they said to the poll watchers, “We know the law. We’re allowed to vote without I.D.,” many were still turned away.
AMY GOODMAN: What does the Secretary of State say?
ADAM COHEN: The Secretary of State says the right things, and I have talked to him a number of times. He actually, I think, has sent out word to the local county officials that they cannot do this, but the problem is that it is up to the county officials. They don’t always want the Indians in their county to vote. In fact, in one county where there’s a heavy Indian registration, the county auditor, the woman in charge of the elections, wrote down in her own handwriting on a piece of paper, Indians — sorry, she said, “Voters will try to vote without I.D. They’re not allowed to.” That’s a complete misstatement of the law. And then, in fact, some poll watchers in our county did not let Indians vote?
AMY GOODMAN: So did you call to find out what was going on there with this?
ADAM COHEN: I did. It’s very hard to actually get anyone in any way reprimanded, much less criminally prosecuted for doing this sort of thing. I think there’s a feeling in South Dakota that, well, mistakes are made and, you know, votes get lost. Although, to give them credit, in the tremendous uproar that occurred since the June election, they have now put in place a requirement that every polling place in South Dakota now have in writing a sign that says what you need and don’t need in order to vote. Of course, we don’t know if those signs will actually be there in November, but that’s the law now.
AMY GOODMAN: So Native Americans could determine what some consider to be the most important race in this country outside of the presidential race?
ADAM COHEN: That’s absolutely right. It’s not a huge number of voters, but they vote heavily democratic and the margins are so close. Absolutely, a few reservations in South Dakota could determine if our majority leader in the Senate is, or I’m sorry, minority leader is re-elected.
AMY GOODMAN: And the last number of votes that came in that determined the Senator, Tim Johnson, came from Pine Ridge.
ADAM COHEN: Came from Pine Ridge, absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s move from South Dakota to Secretaries of State around the country, and their power right now and what they’re doing.
ADAM COHEN: Sure. In most states, the Secretary of State is the highest elections official. Now, the problem is that they’re also generally partisan, elected on a party platform and very often involved in political campaigns. We thought after the scandals of 2000 when Katherine Harris was both making all the rules in Florida and co-chairing the Bush-Cheney election campaign, that there would be a stop put to this, but in fact, the National Association of Secretaries of State considered briefly whether they should have a rule that Secretaries of State have to be non-partisan during the election and they decided not to adopt that rule. In fact, we are seeing in places like Michigan and Missouri, and other places, we have Secretaries of State who are making rules about the election, who are deciding where registration drives funded by taxpayer money will be held. Will they be held in the inner city or at the suburban shopping mall? They’re doing all of that with taxpayer money and they’re also working in presidential campaigns.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the Ohio Secretary of State and paper stock
ADAM COHEN: Yes. The Ohio Secretary of State is a partisan republican, Ken Blackwell, who hopes to run for governor himself next year, which puts him in a position, obviously, of wanting to make friends with lots of people. He has made a number of rulings this year that have been fairly outrageous, but probably the worst was he just decided that voter registrations that were streaming into the county offices around the state, largely democratic registrations brought in by groups like America Coming Together, would be rejected, would have to be rejected if they came in on paper stock that was less than 80 pound weight. Now, it’s a ridiculous rule. When I talked to his office —
AMY GOODMAN: What is 80 pound weight paper?
ADAM COHEN: Sure. It would be, you know, I guess, like a wedding invitation might come on 80 pound paper. It’s very thick paper. There’s no reason a voter registration has to come on that. Actually, it’s hard to imagine why it would even be required. It appears that it goes back to a time when county officials liked to have the forms come in, and then they could neatly stack them in index card boxes and they could be sure they would be very stiff and easy to sort. But in fact, many counties now don’t even keep the actual form. They input them on computer. The reason the Secretary of State’s office has given lately for this rule is they say, well, these forms get sent through the mail, and there are machines at the post office that can mangle paper if it comes in — registrations if they come in on lighter paper. The problem with that is first of all, the rule applied even to walk-in registrations, so if you brought your form in, they would still reject it if it was on thin paper. And also, the rules should be that if your registration manages to get through the post office and arrives intact and easily readable, it should be accepted. It seemed to be designed just to stop people from registering and voting. There was a huge uproar over that issue in Ohio, and in fact, Mr. Blackwell had to retract that rule. But unfortunately, that’s sort of par for the course where Secretaries of State are issuing all kinds of outlandish rulings, some of which they have to back down on, but many others are still in place and are stopping people from voting.
AMY GOODMAN: Colorado, the Secretary of State there, an extremely close senatorial race between Peter Coors and Ken Salazar.
ADAM COHEN: Yeah. As we know, there’s a huge fight going on for the Senate right now in which really every race around the country could be determinative. There’s an extremely close race in Colorado where every vote could count. The Secretary of State of Colorado decided that provisional ballots, which under the help America to Vote Act, the federal reform that was passed in 2002 after the Florida mess, one of the few real things it did that was of any use is that it created the federal right to vote on a paper ballot or a provisional ballot if there’s some question about whether you’re registered to vote. You get to vote on election day, and they put that vote aside and determine later whether it counts, which is actually a lot better than what happened in 2000, where if you couldn’t find your name on the voting rolls election day, they just made you go away. So this is an important right. In Colorado, the Secretary of State decided that she would count provisional votes for president but she would not count them for U.S. Senate. There’s no reason for this. Anywhere you go in the state, if you cast a ballot in Colorado, your eligible to vote for Senate because Senate is a state-wide race. So every provisional ballot for Senate should count. She just decided she’s not going to do that. And it’s an example of the amazing amount of power and arbitrary power that these partisan Secretaries of State have.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what a provisional ballot is.
ADAM COHEN: Sure. That’s that ballot that, under the Help America to Vote Act, you vote if there’s some question about whether you are eligible to vote. So it could be a paper ballot. When you show up on election day if there’s a question about whether you can vote, if you’re not on the registration roles, you might be told that you have to vote provisionally.
AMY GOODMAN: So how could she say that one vote counts and one doesn’t, the one for president counts, the one for Senate doesn’t?
ADAM COHEN: There doesn’t seem to be any rules about this that stop her from doing it. It’s not the rule that’s being followed in, I think, any other state, but it’s just her arbitrary decision.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Adam Cohen, the New York Times editorial writer. who has doing a series called “Making Votes Count,” traveling around the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Adam Cohen, a New York Times editorial writer, who’s been traveling the country looking at people’s right to vote and obstacles in the way of those rights to vote. He’s been doing a series called, “Making Votes Count” which you can click on on the New York Times website and get the whole series. What about felon purges in Florida and elsewhere?
ADAM COHEN: We all remember in 2000, Katherine Harris did a purge of so-called felons that removed many, many people from the rolls. But it turned out many of them were not felons at all. That was not accidental. It turned out that she had been given information that the way the purge was being done made it very inaccurate. She said to go ahead and do it anyway. As she may have anticipated, a lot of the people removed from the rolls were African Americans and other people who were unlikely to vote for her candidate — remember, she was co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign that year. So we would have thought after that embarrassing and troubling situation, Florida wouldn’t do it again this year. Glenda Hood, who is Katherine Harris’s successor, did the same thing all over again. She did a felon purge, which was very much flawed. The wrinkle she added is she decided that she had the right to keep it secret. She wasn’t going to tell the media who was being purged. CNN and other media organizations had to go to court to get a court order. When she was ordered to make it public, within a day, the newspapers found thousands of names on the rolls who were in fact not felons at all. So, completely outrageous situation. And again, Glenda Hood, although nominally non-partisan — she’s not involved in the Bush-Cheney campaign — she was an elector for George Bush in 2000 in Florida. It’s troubling.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about — well, let’s look at other places in the country. Not just Florida. Then I want that talk about how the military votes.
ADAM COHEN: Let me say a word about other states. These purges go on everywhere, but the problem is there’s really no mechanism for us to know how they’re being done. There’s a very great possibility that thousands of people are being thrown off in every state, but there’s no accountability, no transparency. One example I can give you is, when I was reporting on this, it occurred to me that the same kind of felon purges or other purges may being done wrongly in New York state. When I called the New York State Board of Elections and said, “Can you tell us how this is working and how do we know that people are not being wrongly purged,” the one person I was told could talk to me about this, the spokesman, hung up the phone. He was offended by the question. In New York, we apparently don’t have the right to know how they’re doing the purge.
AMY GOODMAN: That brings up another issue. Are there national standards? Why is this determined state by state? We’re talking about the vote for the President of the United States.
ADAM COHEN: Exactly. There’s a tradition of states’ rights in this country that still has a lot of sway in Congress, and when the Help America to Vote Act, the post-2000 reform, was being negotiated in Congress, a lot of Congress members said, “You know, we don’t want to impose federal rules on the states.” But what you say is exactly right. This is a federal election. When people get purged in Florida, it doesn’t just affect Florida, it affects who we in New York and people in California and everywhere else will have as President. They’re starting to do some federal rules — the Help America to Vote Act was one start. There need to be more district federal guidelines. Congress needs to do more.
AMY GOODMAN: The military. How does the military vote?
ADAM COHEN: Well, again, it’s shocking how little transparency there is about this. You would think that people who are handling federal votes in a presidential election would have it all written down somewhere, and we would all be able to see how it’s done and be sure it’s fair. Completely not true. In this year’s election, there was a little bit of a dust-up over the fact that two states said they would allow the military to e-mail non-confidential ballots. A bunch of us wrote about that.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “non-confidential ballots?”
ADAM COHEN: When you e-mail a vote, if you are a soldier and e-mail your vote, it’s not a secret ballot. Your vote is an attachment to an email that anyone along the way can read. There’s controversy about that, but then it led us to realize, 37 states allow the military to vote by fax. Also not a secret ballot.
AMY GOODMAN: Where are you faxing to?
ADAM COHEN: You have two choices. You can fax to your local elections office, but what the Pentagon has done for your convenience, you soldiers around the world, is they have set up a hotline that you can fax to, which goes to Washington. So, I called the Pentagon and I said, could you explain to me where these non-secret ballots that come in from soldiers go? Do they go into the Pentagon? How do we know that you’re — they’re supposed to then send these ballots to the correct states, to the correct county offices. I said, could you please explain how we know that you’re sending them off the way they should be sent? That you’re sending all the votes for both candidates? They said, actually, these ballots, the faxed ballots from soldiers and the e-mailed ballots from soldiers don’t come to the Pentagon, they go to a defense contractor called Omega Technologies. Well, I had never heard of Omega Technologies. It seems that it had been never described anywhere. It was not in any written materials that I could find. I talked to Omega Technologies. It turns out it is a Pentagon contractor. The CEO of it is a contributor to the Republican Congressional Re-election Committee. In this cycle, she’s given $6,600. She’s on a committee of this Republican Congressional Re-election Committee. She’s handling the non-secret ballots, and there’s no oversight of any kind. There’s no ability for the parties or the candidates to go in and make sure that the ballots are being handled correctly, and that they’re all being transferred to the states. I mean, we don’t know that they’re not, say, throwing out the John Kerry ballots. It’s just shocking. The other thing we don’t know is how many ballots get handled in this way. There seem to be no reporting requirements. We have no idea how many ballots go in, how many come out. One little disturbing thing that I learned is that this is the process that was used in 2000. Remember when the military ballots came in at the last minute in Florida and may have changed the outcome of the election? We don’t know how many went through this office. Now, I should say, many of them went directly to county elections offices, and it may be that this office only handled a few ballots, but we really don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Do they say? Have you talked to the head of Omega Technologies?
ADAM COHEN: I talked to the head of Omega Technologies, and all I can say is it was very confusing. She said to me that she was very angry because we had written that she handled the actual ballots because this was not true. And I said to her, “Well, the Pentagon says that you are handling them this year and you have in the past.” When I talked to her again, she admitted that they had handled actual ballots, but she seemed unaware of that the first time. They now say that it’s a matter of hundreds of ballots an election. I think they said 300 or so. We have no idea if that’s true. We have no idea if they have taken all of the ballots — if they have reported them accurately and transferred them accurately.
AMY GOODMAN: And if these are not secret ballots, what does it mean if you decide not to vote for your commander in chief?
ADAM COHEN: Well, people who know the military have said to me this is a huge issue. It could mean a lot. Because it’s not only not secret at the Pentagon level, it may not actually be secret at your base, wherever you are. You may have to take your ballot into the commanding officer’s office. That might be the only fax machine on the base. His secretary or he himself may be leaning over the fax machine. Absolutely, there could be ramifications. It’s often said that the commanders in the military are very Republican, that the lower-level soldiers less so. It can have a lot of ramifications. There is no legitimate reason for having this not be a secret ballot. It’s not clear to me that, you know, that isn’t one of the intentions in all of this, is to make sure that, you know, voters in the military feel they are being watched a little bit.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Adam Cohen, New York Times editorial writer. What about non-military — what about civilians overseas? How do they vote?
ADAM COHEN: This is another problem with the system. The way it was set up, there’s one office, the Federal Voting Assistance Program, that’s supposed to help military and non-military voters overseas. The office is part of the Pentagon. It’s not clear to me why, if you are in the Peace Corps or spending a year abroad in France, why the Defense Department should be involved in your voting. Also, it’s not clear that the Pentagon is as interested in other overseas ballots. They seemed very interested in getting the military to vote, less so for all these other groups. There was a bit of a partisan dust-up over this recently, because the military vote is heavily Republican. The other overseas vote tends to be more Democratic. It appears that the people in charge of helping overseas voters vote have made it quite a bit easier for military voters to vote than non-military voters.
AMY GOODMAN: Pushing soldiers to vote.
ADAM COHEN: Pushing soldiers to vote and making it much harder than it should be for those people in the Peace Corps or taking that year abroad in Europe to get their registration materials, to register, and get absentee ballots, and to vote.
AMY GOODMAN: How does it work on the website? Wasn’t there an issue about where you could vote online?
ADAM COHEN: Yeah, you can’t actually vote on the Internet, but you can use it to get your voting materials and so forth, and yes, the military was making it available only to members of the military, saying it was easier for them to verify the ID of military voters. But again there should be no discrimination. Any service like that should not be weighted towards some voters and against other voters.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of years abroad, what about students in this country?
ADAM COHEN: Students in this country often have a hard time voting. There are actually places in the country where they have been threatened with prosecution for simply trying to register from their dorms, which they have a Constitutional right to do. The Supreme Court has spoken to the issue. But in Prairie View Texas this year, we had a District Attorney who threatened to prosecute the 8,000 African-American — largely African-American — students at Prairie View A&M, if they tried to register from their dorms. We had someone in upstate New York who was threatened with prosecution. All voting is local. In a lot of the local communities, they see students as a threat. They’re not thinking necessarily about the Presidential election, they may be thinking, “Hey, if all of these students register, they could throw out the local city council member. They could change the mayoral race,” and things like that. So they really tell a lot of students they can’t vote.
AMY GOODMAN: You did a piece on new citizens.
ADAM COHEN: Yeah. New citizens are also a group that have had some obstacles. Probably the most egregious thing in this regard that happened this year is, there was a group in Florida called Mi Familia Vota that does register Latino, often new citizens to vote. They put up a little registration table in Miami Beach on the public sidewalk outside of a building where there had just been a naturalization ceremony. They wanted to register the 3,000 new registered citizens and their family members who showed up for the ceremony. The Department of Homeland Defense — Homeland Security — told them they could not be on this public sidewalk registering people. It’s completely outrageous.
AMY GOODMAN: Told them they couldn’t register.
ADAM COHEN: Could not register people. The reasons they gave were so specious. One was that in another part of the state, Republicans had tried to register some new citizens with forms that already had the Republican Party checked on it, so therefore, this non-partisan group would not be allowed to register other citizens. They also said they were creating an obstruction on the sidewalk. Completely ridiculous. A federal court rejected all of these reasons, but again, it shows that’s an arm of the federal government trying to stop newly registered citizens from registering to vote.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Adam Cohen, for joining us. Writer for the New York Times, he’s an editorial writer at the New York Times. His series is called, “Making Votes Count.” You can just go to the website and click on it and get all of the pieces. Thanks for joining us. We continue with Countdown to the Showdown: the Battle for the White House.