Christopher Edley Discusses Election Reform

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This partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, July 31, 2001, was provided by the Federal Document Clearing House. Click here to order the complete transcript.

BRIT HUME, HOST: The recommendations President Bush received at the White House for reforming the American way of voting seemed to be based on the idea that since voting is a fundamental right, it should not only be legally protected but it should be easily exercised. And voting machinery should be as uniform as possible everywhere; election day should be a holiday; convicted felons should be able to vote once their sentences are served; and there should be a new federal commission to oversee all of this.

For more on the recommendations and the issues they raise, we turn to Christopher Edley, a Harvard Law professor, a former special counsel to President Clinton and a member of both the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the National Commission of Election Reform, which gave us these new recommendations.

Chris, welcome. Nice to see you.


HUME: Tell me, first of all, about your sense of President Bush's response to these, how he received them. I know he endorsed them in principle. Are you satisfied with his response?

EDLEY: Yes, I am. I mean, after all, for months, the White House has been -- I don't want to sound partisan, but they've bobbing and weaving, really not sure how they were going to come down on this issue and what kind of priority they were going to assign to it. So in that sense, I'd say today was an important victory for people who are interested in having bold legislation.

The president embraced a set of principles that, I think importantly, don't just take a bite at the problem, but really address a wide range of aspects. Virtually every significant issue people have identified coming out of November, 2000, we address in the commission's recommendations.

The president wrapped his arms around them. He didn't -- he didn't say he agreed with every last detail of them, but he made a lot of noises like he wants something to happen on the Hill.

HUME: Now, the -- the- as I mentioned earlier, there does seem to be the underlying idea that when you go to vote, it should be pretty easy.

EDLEY: That's -- that's right.

HUME: But let me ask you a question about that.

EDLEY: And equally easy for...

HUME: Everybody.

EDLEY: ... everybody in every community.

HUME: Right.

EDLEY: It shouldn't depend on class or color or the wealth of your community, and so forth, that the infrastructure ought to be there for everybody.

HUME: As a philosophical matter, should -- should -- should voting require more than sort of showing up at a polling place, or maybe not even showing up, maybe showing up on a Web site somewhere, with an intent to vote for someone or other, or should there be some level of effort required, some -- some sign of a responsible exercise of citizenship required?

EDLEY: Yeah. You ought to learn what you want to vote for and then show up and vote for them. That's it. Now, there -- it is true that -- actually, my -- more in my experience with the Civil Rights Commission, we certainly encountered some local officials who treat the franchise, the right to vote, like it's some present that's wrapped up in a little box, and it's the voter's obligation to figure out how to open up the box.

HUME: Right.

EDLEY: And there are other election officials who realize that they're in the customer service business and they're supposed to make it easy for people to exercise their fundamental rights, and that you don't have to pass some threshold of competence or commitment or dedication. If you're an American citizen, you've got a right to vote. I think we should make it as easy as possible for people to vote, consistent -- I mean, we don't want fraud, we don't want -- but I think that, within reason, it ought to be easy to cast a ballot.

HUME: Now, your Commission on Civil Rights experience in Florida -- you surely were aware that in the case of some of the punchcard ballot systems...

EDLEY: Right.

HUME: ... that there was a set of instructions, universal -- universally distributed, in newspapers, in the voting places, staring voters in the face, for example, when they sat down to vote, that were to one degree or another disregarded. Let me ask you this about that idea in general.

When there are such a set of instructions, is it too much, as a matter of principle, to ask voters to follow them? Are they too complicated? Or are they a reasonable thing to ask voters to exercise, as a part of their citizenship?

EDLEY: Look, we got rid of poll taxes. We shouldn't replace a poll tax with a pop quiz before you can cast a ballot. If you go to your bank and you use an ATM machine, and systematically, in 5 percent, 10 percent of the cases, the consumer makes a mistake and loses some money in the transaction, you wouldn't say "Tough luck on the consumer." What you'd say is the banks have an obligation to try to make the use of the machinery effective, the human engineering aspect of it, so that people aren't tricked, that people can express their will effectively. Frankly, it's in all of our interests that every voter be able to do that.

And I want to correct something you said up in the lead-in. What we have talked about is not uniformity in equipment or machinery. Quite the opposite. One of the most surprising recommendations we have is -- regards -- I think many people think the quick and easy thing to do -- "Let's get rid of the punchcard machines"...

HUME: Right.

EDLEY: ... because of the dangling chads and whatnot. Not only does the commission say that that's not the most important thing, we say that that's the wrong thing to do. And here's why. We know that there are jurisdictions in the country where they've got relatively well-functioning punchcard machines, and they've got voter education, and so forth. And they've got error rates or ballot spoilage rates that are down under 1 percent, under half a percent. So there are places where the punchcard machine makes sense.

If we instead create a program where we have local jurisdictions invest in, let's say, optical scanning equipment to get rid of the punchcards, they're actually buying a technology that the commission feels, in the longer run, is not the right technology because it's not good enough for accessibility for the disabled, for the hearing-impaired, for people who are language minorities. Ultimately, we want to see jurisdictions move in the direction of this touchscreen ATM-style machinery that can be...

HUME: That traps errors, too.

EDLEY: Exactly. So our emphasis is not on any particular technology, but on establishing benchmarks for ballot spoilage rates down at 2 percent or less in every state and, indeed, in every county and precinct. And we want to say to the states, "Look, however you get there, the combination of investment in equipment, voter education, in training poll workers in providing assistance, whatever set of tools you need to achieve that performance standard, that's what we want to drive toward."

HUME: So you would want uniform systems within a jurisdiction, but not uniform systems nationwide.

EDLEY: That's right. But the emphasis is on the quality of the performance, the quality of the infrastructure of the election, that we've got to drive down these rates of ballot spoilage, these error rates.

HUME: And the obligation to instruct the voters properly rests on...

EDLEY: It's a shared responsibility. There's an obligation for public servants to obey the law and to provide customer service. There's obviously also an obligation on the part of citizens, voters, to be educated and to learn what they need to learn.

HUME: And is there an obligation, in your view, on the part of a voter who may be confused to ask for help?

EDLEY: There is. But all too often, all too often -- voters ask and poll workers aren't well enough trained to give an answer, or they give the wrong answer, or the poll workers don't even know what the voter is entitled to.

HUME: Sort of like the IRS.

EDLEY: Well, let me not go there because I'm having dealings with them.


EDLEY: But it -- but I...

HUME: Not the wrong kind, I hope.

EDLEY: That's right. So the emphasis here has got to be that every vote should count, and states and the federal government together need to step up to the plate and make that a reality.

HUME: And that seems to have met with, certainly, the bipartisan approval of the commission.

EDLEY: Astonishing. And I don't -- don't -- nobody should make a mistake. The fact that we agreed doesn't mean that it's all milketoast. There's a lot of bold stuff in there.

HUME: All right. Chris Edley, thanks for being here. Nice to see you.

EDLEY: Good to see you.

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