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Secretaries of State Debra Bowen of California and Robin Carnahan of Missouri on Voting Issues in a Year of Soaring Turnout

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We speak to the top election officials from two states — California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan — about some of the contentious issues facing the American electorate ahead of the November presidential election. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law requiring voters to show photo identification. Many Democrats and civil rights groups have opposed the law, saying it is a thinly veiled effort to suppress elderly, poor and minority voters, those most likely to lack proper ID and who tend to vote for Democrats. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law requiring voters to show photo identification. In a 6-to-3 ruling, the court agreed with Republican supporters that the voter ID law was necessary to prevent voter fraud and safeguard public confidence in the integrity of elections.

Many Democrats and civil rights groups have opposed the law, saying it’s a thinly veiled effort to suppress elderly, poor and minority voters, those most likely to lack proper ID and who tend to vote for Democrats. Voter ID laws are one of many contentious issues facing the American electorate ahead of the November presidential election.

Today we’re joined by the top election officials in two states. Here in California, Debra Bowen is Secretary of State. Robin Carnahan is Secretary of State in Missouri. They both join me here in the San Diego PBS station KPBS. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Let’s begin with you, Debra Bowen. The Indiana law, the Supreme Court decision, the significance of it?

DEBRA BOWEN: Well, it is limited to Indiana. So, right now we only have seven states that have similar laws, but I think we’re all watching to see what happens in other states. It wasn’t a good case. We didn’t have facts showing what would actually happen, and I think Secretary Carnahan has really been following this closely.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary Carnahan, your response?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Well, you know, we have had the same issue in Missouri a couple of years ago about whether it was appropriate to have a state-issued photo ID. You know, I think for all of us in the elections business, it makes sense that people identify themselves when they go to vote. The question is, what kind of document is needed to do that? In my state, you have to — you have several choices about that. The legislature tried to make it one specific kind of ID card that not everybody had. And so, that’s the real problem. We want to make sure that every eligible citizen is able to vote and make sure that folks who shouldn’t vote aren’t voting. And you have to have some kind of ID. The question is reasonableness, and that’s what the Supreme Court was getting at.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the motivation behind the attempt in Missouri?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Well, I don’t know exactly what was in the hearts of the people who wanted to do this. What they said publicly — pardon me — was that it was about preventing voter fraud. The problem is, in my state and many others, there’s not a lot of evidence of in-person voter fraud, meaning someone shows up at the polls and pretends that they’re somebody else. For me, elections are really important, but for most people, that’s not important enough to go lie about.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to have this kind of identification? And why is that so onerous, and why does it particularly affect certain populations?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Well, what we’ve seen is that many times it’s not the ID itself. If you could go get one, it would be no big deal. But you require lots of underlying documents in order to get the ID in the first place. In Missouri, it was required that you would bring forward a birth certificate, a Social Security card. If your name had changed, you had to have the legal documents for that, as well as proof of residence. So it could be sort of a burden, particularly if you maybe were born out of state and tried to get a birth certificate to replace one that you didn’t have. And if you couldn’t do that, you wouldn’t be able to get an ID card that would let you then vote.

AMY GOODMAN: And poorer people and older people?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: You know, you can think about who doesn’t have a driver’s license, right? And that’s what we did in Missouri, is we took a look at the driver’s license and non-driver’s license list and the voter list and compared those and found that over 200,000 people could have been harmed by this. They were registered voters, but didn’t have this particular required state ID card.

AMY GOODMAN: How many?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Over 200,000.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think, as a result of this Supreme Court decision, there will be a proliferation of these attempts to get this — require this kind of ID in different states?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: I think the debate will certainly be opened up by this. But as Secretary Bowen mentioned, the case in the Supreme Court was very specific. It was about Indiana law and Indiana facts. And we had a case in Missouri that our State Supreme Court found unconstitutional, because they showed and understood that people were really harmed by this. So I think what we need to do is just tell the story about not everyone having this specific ID, and let’s do things that are more reasonable and inclusive that ensures that people are able to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by two Secretaries of State: the Secretary of State of California, Debra Bowen, and Secretary of State of Missouri, Robin Carnahan. We’ll be back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by two Secretaries of State: by Debra Bowen, Secretary of State of California; Robin Carnahan, Secretary of State of Missouri. The issue of electronic voting machines — Secretary Bowen, you just received the 2008 JFK Profile in Courage Award. You took on the electronic voting machine industry here in this state. Talk about the review you did of electronic voting machines.

DEBRA BOWEN: Well, we didn’t just review electronic voting machines; I reviewed all voting systems. This is the review.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re looking at a many-inches-thick review here.

DEBRA BOWEN: It is. It was commissioned by the University of California. We had a series of independent experts from universities and the private sector around the country. They looked at security. They looked at accessibility. This equipment is intended to allow disabled voters to vote, and we found things like the legs on the voting machine are so close together that anyone in a wheelchair can’t get under it.

And we looked at the documentation, and we reviewed the source code. One of the big issues, of course, is that this source code is private, it’s a trade secret, and in California at least, the local registrars, local elections officials, are not allowed to look at it. And everyone in my office who looked at it had to sign nondisclosure agreements. So there’s a lot that’s public, but much that we discovered that I could not make public. And this is really an issue for voting systems in this country. That we have systems in which ordinary citizens are not allowed to view the mechanisms by which their votes are recorded actually gives people a great deal pause.

AMY GOODMAN: So what did you do?

DEBRA BOWEN: I decertified all of the touch-screen voting systems, with the exception of one per precinct, because it is, in many instances, the best we can do for voters who have physical disabilities. And we’ve moved to a paper-based system, a Scantron or optical scan. Most Americans are familiar with it. It’s a typical multiple-choice format. That gives us the individual voter’s record of how they intended to mark their ballot. And I coupled that with an increase in the auditing standards, because if you have the voter’s ballot but you don’t know when you have to go back to look at that record, you haven’t really improved the situation. So now in California, if we have a race that’s within a half a percent at that first count, we will automatically expand the recount and do a ten percent hand count in that race until we are able to basically have 99.99 percent certainty that we’ve called the race accurately.

AMY GOODMAN: What about electronic voting machines in Missouri, Secretary Carnahan?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: We’re basically a paper-based system in Missouri. We also have, as is federally required, at least one of the touch-screen machines in every polling place. And those all have, what they’re called, voter-verified paper audit trails, so there’s a piece of paper that’s printed out at the time the voter is casting their vote. And I’m also trying this year to have our legislature pass a bill to make sure everybody has a choice to vote on a paper ballot, so that there is no risk of running out on Election Day.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is this issue of having a receipt, a record of your vote so difficult here in this country? Rush Holt, the congressman from New Jersey, has been trying to push this through for years. We can get it when we go to the ATM. We get receipts when we go grocery shopping. Why is this so difficult when it comes to voting machines, Secretary Bowen?

DEBRA BOWEN: I actually think the receipt is — we need to get past the paper record, because I don’t think it actually works. We’ve seen evidence of poll workers telling voters, “Oh, never mind that paper. That’s just for the central office or administrative.” It requires people in a ballot in which they may have a hundred different races or more, judicial races, congressional races, ballot initiatives, to be able to track how they voted and then go back at the very end on what looks like a little cash register tape. And the academic studies show that people, even if they’re being very careful, may not notice if the receipt, the paper record, is different than the way they cast their ballot. I think it’s better to just scrap that system and go to a paper ballot.

One other thing I should say is that a touch-screen machine is not required under the Help America Vote Act for disabled access. There is a system that allows a voter to use a computer on the front end with whatever assistive technology is available, but it produces a printed optical scan ballot. So there is no requirement that there be any touch-screen used any place in the country. It’s only one of the potential solutions for disabled voters.

AMY GOODMAN: How are you both preparing for this, what seems like a vast increase in the number of voters come November, if these primaries and caucuses are any indication, Secretary Carnahan?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Well, you’re right. It’s been fascinating to watch. You know, this has been the most participatory nominating process in the history of our country, by far. We have had over 48 million votes cast in both of the races, and we just have never seen that before.

AMY GOODMAN: Are we talking something like triple the number in the past?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Well, I don’t know what the national figure is, and we’re not done yet. But the point is, in the past, parties could select their candidates however they wanted. Sometimes there were caucuses. Sometimes there were just back-room deals. Today, people are out there voting. And so, the enthusiasm and excitement about it is like we’ve never seen before.

In my state, we could get upwards of over 70 percent of the vote. Some secretaries are talking about 80 percent. That’s a strain on just the sort of mechanical system on Election Day. So I think there are lots of things we’re all doing to prepare. One of the things we’re focused on in Missouri is not only this make sure we don’t run out of ballots, because then folks have to stand in line a long time, but also preparing poll workers. You know, elections don’t just happen. They happen because citizens get involved and they go work as election judges on Election Day. So I hope you talk to your viewers about getting out there and volunteering to be election judges.

AMY GOODMAN: How do people?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Well, it varies by state. You know, that’s one of the things about our democracy in America, is it’s very localized. Elections are run locally, not even by us. We don’t run elections in our states. I have 116 election authorities in my state and thousands and thousands of poll workers who are on the frontlines, and those are regular people. And so, we need to get people to volunteer with their local election authority to say, “Count me in. I want to help on Election Day.”

AMY GOODMAN: Overall in the industrialized world, the United States is at the bottom end of voter participation. I mean, we’re still only talking about little more than half of people voting. How do you push for, guarantee universal voting? The discussion, for example, of Puerto Rico, the idea that they have a holiday on Election Day. They don’t do it on a Sunday or any day that might be a religious day for someone, but on a Tuesday. And they have one of the highest rates of voting in this country. Secretary Bowen?

DEBRA BOWEN: Both of us would support a national holiday, but that’s really only part of it. I think one of the things I’m seeing in California is voters saying to me, “You know, I had stopped voting, because I wasn’t confident that it mattered.” And we really need to assure people that if they take time to register, their names will be on the rolls. And the role of voter registration in this process is, I think, often neglected. You can do a lot to interfere with people’s right to vote by mishandling the voter registration rolls. And then, we need to make all of this transparent, so that people have confidence that there is a way to audit, there’s a way to check that every vote is counted as it was cast and that the system has integrity.

AMY GOODMAN: But what about the obstacles to voting? For example, if someone becomes an immigrant, why aren’t they that day an automatic voter?

DEBRA BOWEN: Well, I would support that. I mean, I think that’s the direction we should move. And if we do that and we begin to track people from the very first time they’re eligible to vote, we’ll have a lot less concern about deadwood on the rolls and what happens when people move, because we’ll know where they were from the beginning of their voting history.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean a national voter database?

DEBRA BOWEN: Well, it’s state-run, and right now we’re not ready to move to a national database. You know, I think we have to be careful. We don’t know what the integrity of the voter registration databases is in other states, and we want to be very careful about removing someone from the registration database.

In California, I think we’ve done a lot to make it easier for people to vote. California voters have the right to be a permanent vote-by-mail voter. They can elect to get their ballot in the mail without taking any extra step in every election cycle. And we now have 41 percent of people choosing to vote by mail. Over 60 percent get their ballots automatically that way in some counties.

AMY GOODMAN: What about former felons? What are the rules around felony disenfranchisement here in California?

DEBRA BOWEN: That varies from state to state, too. Here, it’s automatic. But that doesn’t mean that people who are former felons know they have the right.

AMY GOODMAN: Meaning, when they’re finished with probation, parole, they can vote.

DEBRA BOWEN: Right. We do have some sheriffs who have been very proactive about this. Sheriff Lee Baca in Los Angeles County, which is the biggest county in California, of course, has a program in his jail system to get people registered before they’re released. He wants to cut recidivism. And one of the ways you do that is by giving people a stake in society. So I’ve seen some very innovative things, but we often in our system of innovation don’t go from something great that’s happening in a local or state jurisdiction to “Let’s all work towards this.”

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary Carnahan, for felony disenfranchisement, the issue in Missouri?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: It’s automatic.

AMY GOODMAN: Automatically —-

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Just as in California.

AMY GOODMAN: But people don’t know -—

ROBIN CARNAHAN: — so once you’re finished, you can vote.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about universal voting? What do you think would lead toward that?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Well, look, people have to take some responsibility in this, and you can’t force someone. As, you know, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, it’s the same way with elections. But we can make it easier, and part of it is making it convenient for people, and part of it is making sure they’re confident in the process.

You know, one of the things I like to remind people about is just even Election Day. You know, why is it we vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November? It’s because of history. When this was established by Congress in 1845, we were an agrarian country. They didn’t do it in the spring, because farmers were planting; in the summer, they were — had growing season; and in the fall, it was harvest season. So they chose November, because it was convenient. And they chose Tuesday, because it was convenient. It wasn’t a day where people were going to church. I might take a long time when you’re a horse and buggy to get into town to vote, and Wednesday was market day, so Tuesday was convenient. So we’re stuck here with this thing that was convenient in 1845. I think we ought to try to make it convenient and relevant today, and I think more people would vote.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about making it possible for, at every step of the way — for example, immigrants, they become — when they become a citizen, they immediately vote?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: You know, I’ve been to citizenship ceremonies and participated in those in my state, and the League of Women Voters is always right outside the door. And whenever I talk about it, the number one thing I talk about is, now that you’re a citizen, one of your responsibilities is to vote. And there’s a long line out there with people signing up to vote, and I think that’s great.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you both become secretaries of state? And I don’t think people even think about their state secretaries of state. You come from a distinguished political family, Secretary Carnahan. Your father, the senator and governor of Missouri; your mother, first female senator of Missouri; your, what, grandfather —

ROBIN CARNAHAN: He was a member of Congress a long time ago.

AMY GOODMAN: And an ambassador.




AMY GOODMAN: In Sierra Leone?

ROBIN CARNAHAN: Right. So my mother always jokes that it’s sort of a genetic defect. But when I was a kid, public policy and what you did in your community was what we talked about at the dinner table. And so, I grew up thinking you could make a difference and have enjoyed serving as Secretary of State, because I think you can make a difference. We can talk about these issues, about voting and other things we do to make government work well, and I love that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. So another day, we’ll find out, Secretary Bowen, why you became Secretary of State. But I thank you both very much for being with us, and I also thank the PBS station here in San Diego, KPBS, for being so gracious today.

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