Malcom Urges Adoption of Carter-Baker Voting Reform Proposals
An Interview with Shirley Malcom
[Shirley Malcom, the head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, was one of 21 members of the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform that presented a comprehensive plan of recommended action to President George W. Bush and congressional leaders on Monday 19 September. In an interview with AAAS Senior Writer Edward W. Lempinen, Malcom discussed America's troubled voting system and the commission's proposed remedies.]
Is there one recommendation in the report, or two, that strike you as most important?
I think that there are at least two areas of concern that are absolutely critical. One relates to the fact that we don't really have the technology yet that will allow people to really feel confident that the vote that they cast is the vote that got counted, and that allows the electorate to feel that the system is transparent, secure and tamper-proofand that you can come back and audit the results. And I think this is paramount in terms of restoring credibility.
The other area is closely alignedthe area of election management. It's one thing to have good technology that you trust, and that you trust no one can hack into, or tamper with; it is another to manage the system of creating voter rolls in a way that is fair and then deal with issues of the distribution of technology, having adequate numbers of poll workers with the requisite skills to deal with the technology and to deal with the acceptability and other kinds of issues when people show up at the polls. Without adequate technology and adequate management of the entire election system, we are going to have a crisis of confidence.
Do you think the commission, after the work that it did, came away feeling that there had been a manipulation or even a breakdown of the process in recent elections?
I don't think the commission overall, every member, felt as though there was a manipulation, but I think they all felt that the system is broken to some extent, that it is not in a state that would inspire confidence and that it needs attention. I think after the 2000 election, with the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA)[link: http://www.fec.gov/hava/hava.htm], some of the problems got addressed at that time. But 2004 revealed that there were still problems. There is a need, obviously, to implement the act, but there is also a need to clarify some of the provisions of the act, so that you are able to narrow the responses to the to sections of the law that are ambiguous.
An example of this is the requirement of the states to develop a database of voters in their states. Some states are doing it top-down, some states are doing it from the bottom up. The bottom-up approaches have serious issues with regard to being able to query the system in a timely way, to see whether people are on the voter rolls. And I think the range of responses that were offered came about because of ambiguities in the law as to which way this needed to be done. Some of the issues we hadn't even anticipated, and they had not emerged until the last election cycle. It is critical that they be addressed, and that they don't persist in the system of elections and voting, so that you can feel some kind of confidence that what you have in the system reflects the will of the people.
In the months before the 2004 election, you had been involved at AAAS in organizing initiatives to explore problems with the voting system and that made recommendations about repairing the system. Was that process helpful in preparing you for the work of the Carter-Baker Commission?
It was absolutely critical. That work introduced all of us to the kind of cross-disciplinary discussions that need to go on, where you are able to bring tech people and cyber-security people and political scientists and policy people all into the room at the same time, along with elected officials, so that you could have some amount of "ground-truthing." That kind of multi-disciplinary look at electionsand in that case electronic voting technology, which was the emphasiswas critical. It also meant that going into those deliberations with the Carter-Baker Commission, that I had had at least some prior knowledge of what the major arguments were, what the major issues were, what the options were, who the major players were. That helped with the perspective I was able to offer the commission, as well as my own sense that I had something valuable, and that was valued within the deliberations.
So you talked to the commissioners about the earlier AAAS work?
Yes, as a matter of fact, the work was among the materials that were distributed early on, so the commissioners at least knew there were groups looking at a lot of these concerns and that they had reflected on the need for research to begin to clarify some of the questions we all had.
As a scientist, do you think you brought a different perspective to the commission's deliberations? And did the commissioners look at you as a scientist, and come to you expecting a different sort of perspective?
I should say that, in some ways, I don't practicequote, unquotemy science that much anymore. But did I bring a different perspective to the deliberations? Absolutely. My first set of questions to any of the types of things we were looking at was: What are the facts? What do we know? Where are the data? What is the evidence? I began to realize that those might be the first questions a scientist looks at, but in a policy or political situation, perspective counts as much as facts.
So the facts may say that the fraud of the type where a person goes to the polls and pretends to be someone else doesn't happen that often. The facts may be, for example, that there is more fraud within absentee voting. But you have to deal with the perception that if one person basically does something that is out of place, it's not the number of people doing it, but the fact that it's done at all, which begins to erode confidence for some people. Everybody may agree on the need to address issues of access and integrity. They may give different emphases to these, while agreeing on the need both to plug the holes and smooth the paths to increased access.
I'm just saying I have a lot of respect now for scientists who go into political situations, a lot more respect, because they are in some ways strangers in a strange land. They have to make culture shifts in terms of the way those around them view the world. It's not just what the numbers say, but it's the way that people react to evidence that is presented. And that's a different world. It's a different way of really thinking about policy issues.
I think that there's a lesson in there for the science community as well. We argue for science-based decision-making. That doesn't mean the science drives the decision-making, but it means that the science is one part of how the decisions are made. You can look at the science and you can say, 'Well, we can't deal with that, because we can't afford it or we would displace too many people,' or whatever. So there's all these other things that are not about the science, and not about the numbers, and not about the evidence. It's about these other kinds of issues that have to be weighed at the time before we say, 'This is the direction in which we're going to be going.'
Then you asked another questiondid they look at me in that perspective? I don't know. Given some of the issues I raised and the things that concerned me, I think from time to time they realized I was looking at things from a very different perspective, at least a non-political perspective, though not big-P political.
The commission has made quite extensive recommendations. If they were all enacted, do you think they would carry enough weight and change the culture of voting enough, to reverse voter cynicism?
If they were implemented, if the spirit and the intent were carried through, I think they would go a long way toward removing voter cynicism. It's not clear to me, because I'm not sure the research has been done, what drives the cynicism. Is it people's feelings that somebody else is making decisions and offering them choices at the end of a very long process? Is it that they get tired of hearing negative messages, in spite of the evidence that says negative messages work? Is it because they feel it doesn't matter who's there? I think we've got to do the research so that we can find out what the cynicism is about, and what is actually reflected.
And maybe as important is the idea that it isn't just those who vote, it is perhaps more important to know the people who don't vote. The issue of opting out of the system is important, and we don't know what's driving that. I don't think anything we've recommended here in the report is going to get at that. I think that that is going to require research and some experimentation, and some sharing of knowledge, before we can say what does work to bring people into the system of voting and keep them there and engaged with the democratic processes.
The commission proposes to end the current primary system, and to hold four regional primaries instead. But the panel also is recommending that we keep Iowa and New Hampshire as the opening primaries. You formally dissented from that recommendation. How did that issue play out in the commission? Why did you dissent, ultimately?
Let me say that I that just about everyone on the commission agreed that the season of campaigning is too long, that all of the states are kind of racing to the front of the line and that it is chaotic. It is a system that requires you to have more and more and more money, and you're running for a longer time. So I totally support the notion of the regional primaries that rotate through the regions, because that would provide structure to keep this race to the front of the line from happening. It has the potential to move the season of campaigning within the primary system-reducing the length of time that people are actually engaged in that process. You can get campaign fatigue, and it may be that some of the cynicism is related to this campaign fatigue.
That saidI want to be on record supporting the regional primariesI raised the question about why we want Iowa and New Hampshire first. Iowa and New Hampshire are not really reflective of the diversity of America. I want to raise the question about whether there is any place for that tradition in today's America. New Hampshire has less than 1 percent African American population, in a country that's over 12 percent African American. In terms of Hispanic population, it's something like 2 percent, where we have 14 percent Hispanic population in the United States.
When you have such a distorted reflection of the diversity of America, and candidate goes into those particular primaries, he or she speaks to the issues of that electorate, not to the things that all of us need to know about, how they feel about the vast array of issues that we face here in America. So someone will gain momentum, or notand momentum can also be spelled M-O-N-E-Y. They have to be able to garner supporters. Do they look like a winner, or do they look like a loser? And you are raising these issues in a context that is only partly reflective of all the things that we need to talk about, in regards to America's challenges, hopes and dreams. If we winnow the list of candidates who are viable, who are placed before the next set of states, or before the rest of us based on how they perform in Iowa and New Hampshirethat is one major problem that I have.
In the dissent, I talk about the difficulty of getting on the ballot for a presidential candidate if you're not from one of the major parties. So you couple a dissatisfaction with the primary system with the difficulty of getting on the ballot if you're not with the major parties, then you feel as though you have had your options narrowed too greatly, early on, in ways that are not necessarily reflecting the larger interests of a diverse population.
How much debate was there within the commission on that issue? And was it a passionate debate?
Let me say this: I never expected my fellow commissioners would be able to follow me down that road. They must live in a political world. As a non-political person, I had the luxury of being able to speak out on these issues of fairness. And this is a case where facts basically send you in a different direction. If they were to express these views in a public forum, or a report, I think that they would have real problems explaining them to the people in those two states.
I may have friends in those states, but I still feel there are fundamental issues that they are not necessarily going to reflect. There are questions they will not necessarily ask that will be critical in sizing up a candidate, but which for them, may never appear on their radar.
There was considerable concern on the panel about the security of electronic voting. You mentioned that at the start of this interview, but can you elaborate on it? Why was there special concern with electronic voting by people in the military?
If you actually go back and look at the AAAS report, you will find there is an experiment that is referred to in the context of that report about the issue of Internet voting, which the Department of Defense wanted to look at in terms of being able to accommodate the voting needs of the military. Let's face it, our service men and women are in harm's way on behalf of the country. And the idea that they can't vote easilyit should gall anybody.
They tried to look at this, and there were security experts who looked at this and determined it was not a secure forum to deal with the issue of Internet voting. This was kind of the first foray into saying, can we, or will we be able in the near term, to vote remotely in a situation like this.
Electronic voting, I think the concerns about it ranged over a lot of different areas. There were concerns about really conflicts of interest, on the one hand, among technology producers, and their involvement in campaigns where they're making statements which, in and of themselves, reduce the confidence that people feel with regard to these machines.
Then there's the fact that you did have machine failure and examples of the technology failing. And then there is the concern about security and tampering, the auditabilitywhether or not you can know that the machines are starting with zeroes, that they're not giving votes that are cast for one candidate to another candidate, and that they're counting every vote as it is actually cast.
What is the old statement'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you'? Every time we have an instance of votes being lost or something like this, it raises a spectre of manipulation, or that there's a problem in the system. The technology really reflects the black box. You do something, but you know there's other stuff in there that somebody else programmed, that they could have misprogrammed. They could do mischief and you would never know it.
So the whole question of verifiability is the issue that was raised. Can we have a paper trail so that we have another process by which this technology is audited.
To sum this up, we right now have technology that does not do what we really need or want it to do in the way that we want it to do it. We want verification, but if verifying is simply going back and looking at the numbers as they were reflected on the original tally, as opposed to having an independent source that we can fully check, then this isn't good enough for a lot of people.
There's another issue: A lot of people don't realize that we draw heavily on our senior citizens as poll workers, and our senior citizens are not necessarily conversant or comfortable with the technology. So immediately we have this other issueif you have a problem at the polls, who helps you? I just think there should be an effort to create a system that can remove the inaccuracies, that can make sure that votes get counted, and that also is beyond being tampered with in such a way as to distort the will of the voter.
Did the commission feel that that technology is out there right now? Or is it something that has to be developed?
Actually, that technology is not out there. What we have right now is deeply flawed. It's what the companies have cobbled together and given us, but it's not what we need. There is one section here, and I'll just read it to you:
"Congress should pass a law requiring that all voting machines be equipped with a voter-verifiable paper-audit trail and consistent with HAVA be fully accessible to voters with disabilities. This is especially important for direct recording electronic (DRE) machines for four reasons: a) to increase citizen confidence that their vote will be counted accurately; b) to allow for a recount; c) to provide a back-up in cases of loss of votes due to computer malfunction; and d) to test a random selection of machine whether the paper result is the same as the electronic result. Federal funds should be appropriated to the EAC [U.S. Election Assistance Commission] to transfer to the states to implement this law. While paper trails and ballots currently provide the only means to meet the commission's standards for transparency, new technologies may do so more effectively in the future. The commission therefore urges research and development of new technologies to enhance transparency, security and auditability of voting systems."
So you see, we aren't saying what's out there is good enough. In that statement, we're saying that it's not. But we're calling upon the research community to try to give us something that is better.
The committee suggests more study is needed to assess, for example, why young people don't vote, or why turnout generally tends to be pretty low. Is it plausible to think that study would uncover some selection of data or pattern of behavior that will allow us to solve pervasive disengagement and apathy?
I don't know. But the issue is that right now we don't have it. There are polls of people who are likely to vote, or they do exit pollingthis kind of polling, that kind of polling. The issue is, do we actually go and talk to people who didn't vote? Why didn't you vote? Is this a matter of, 'It wasn't convenient? I couldn't get to the polls, or I had to work?' If it were that, then the issue is, well, why do we have voting on a day when people work? Or why can't we have a holiday the way other countries have? And then you can start to ask the questions. Some people say voting is a habit and you get engaged with it early and you tend to stay with it. There's a section in the report where the commission talks about civic education in the schools, engaging with high school students so that they vote, they understand the purpose of voting, they know how to vote. I mean, how much of voting is really about teaching people what they're likely to expect when they go to the polls? How much of that actually goes on? I'm sure that in some jurisdictions, that's the case where it goes on.
In some cases in 2004, people got up that morning and decided they wanted to vote and they didn't even know where to go to vote. And they put in calls to try to find where their precinct was located, what precinct they were in, where the polling took placethey had a heck of a time in many cases actually finding that information out. There may be informational issues, there may be educational issues, there may be specific engagement issues. There may be lots of things that contribute. But right now, you'd just be doing a game of hit and miss because we just really haven't asked the questions.
The committee seems to accept that, as a way to prevent fraud, it would be helpful to have voters present some sort of valid picture ID. Georgia recently proposed that, and officials there have come under intense criticismit's been criticized as a new form of poll tax.
There is a pragmatic realization that we are moving as a country to having some sort of national identification, for national security purposes. The federal government has already passed the Real ID law. Many states are moving toward requiring IDs for voting. The question is making sure it is in a form that can be used for voting and that it is fully accessible to people.
The commission recommends that the driver's licensethe REAL ID Card-function as a voter's ID, but for the people who do not have driver's licenses, that they receive a free photo ID. Second, the commission recommends that the state assume the pro-active responsibility to go out and find people, register them, and give them an ID.
The Georgia situation is different in that they're saying they're going to require photo ID. They'll make people pay for that ID unless they can show indigency. They have very few places where one can acquire the voter ID, compared with the numbers of legal entitiescountiesthat they have. The commission says, if this is not a driver's license that can operate as both a driver's license and a voter IDif this is for ID purposesthen it ought to be free. And the responsibility needs to be put on the state to proactively go out and find people and get them whatever sort of ID might be required for voting. As opposed to the situation now, which is basically to say you've got the have it to vote, you've got to travel a great distance to get it, and then you have to pay for it. By anybody's definition, that could be considered a poll tax.
I have a real problem with the Georgia law. It goes beyond the question of ID. And in all likelihood, there needs to be the requirement put into place that there be many more places where people can acquire the ID, and that if you're not going to have it as a driver's license, that it be given to you for free. It should be much more consistent with the commission report as opposed to what is currently legislated in Georgia.
See, I have experience with poll taxes. Not personally, but when you're born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, you know how literacy tests and poll taxes were utilized in terms of vote suppression. So you're always a little skeptical about the reasons this was put in place this way.
How soon might we expect to see any action on these proposals? Do you come away optimistic that these reforms, or the majority of them, actually will be undertaken? How much resistance do you expect this to get, and from where?
Making these things happen, for the most part, will require some tweaking in all likelihood, of HAVA, and I don't know how this Congress is going to feel about that. They passed HAVA, and I don't know how they're going to feel, so soon after they passed it, coming back to make adjustments. I think there's going to have to be some amount of selling the report to Congressional leaders and members, but also with the public. We have a responsibility to get it right.
No matter how people may feel about it, we are as a country in a process of trying to spread democracy to other countries in the world and trying to establish voting systems in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever else. But it is very difficult to carry a suitable amount of moral authority around the need to have accessible, fair, secure voting available to people when you're not doing that yourself. We've got to sell the idea that we've got to get our system right in order to maintain our own democratic process. But we also have to be able to convince others in the world who may be looking at putting democracy into place that this can be done in such a way that it can inspire voter confidence.
20 September 2005