Q&A with Yale's Heather Gerken on the voting process and election reform

Friday, October 24, 2008 - 07:25 AM

Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken took your questions on the voting process and how to fix it, Friday, October 24, 2008, at 10 a.m. (Eastern).

The Takeaway: Good morning. Our Q&A with Yale law professor Heather Gerken will begin at 10 a.m. (Eastern). You can submit your questions NOW on the voting process and how to fix it. What needs fixing? Your questions and comments will be added to our list and we'll toss in as many as we can...

The Takeaway: We're about to get started. You can listen to our segment on election reform with Heather Gerken live, or if you're joining us late, the archived audio is here. There's more about Prof. Gerken here.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Hi everyone.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Heather Gerken is with us ... Welcome Heather are you ready for some great questions?

Heather Gerken: Hi. Many thanks for having me.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Questions are coming in let's begin with this one.

[Comment From Shannon]: In your opinion, what are the biggest (potential) glitches in the U.S. voting process today?

Heather Gerken: The sad thing is that we don’t really have enough information to know for sure where potential problems are – unlike corporations and other government agencies, we lack the most basic data to tell us what’s working and what’s isn’t. But my best guess, based on my knowledge of the field and lots of discussions with election administrators, is that we’ll see several kinds of problems. First, registration lists. Many of them are filled with errors, and election administrators may not have time to enter in all the registrations that they get. Second, machines. Lots of systems are moving to new machines. Even if they are better machines, there’s always a tough time transitioning. Third is long lines. We’re expecting a turnout tsunami, and it will be tough to process all the voters through the system as quickly because localities don’t have enough machines or people to do the job quickly enough.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Thanks Shannon ... so Heather is the new technology the biggest problem or something else?

Heather Gerken: New technology isn't a problem if poll workers are well trained. That means that what really matters for voters is preparation. The best prepared states have no problem with technology. The worst ones suffer.

Heather Gerken: My guess is that registration lists are going to be key. Here, too, states are transitioning to new systems, and it will be tough for them to get everyone who has tried to register on the lists.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Heather ... let's get back to poll worker training in a second. This truly is an historic year ... more states than ever, 31 or them are offering early voting. Won't that take some pressure off the system.

Heather Gerken: Yes. Early voting is a godsend for election administrators.

Heather Gerken: But the fact that early voting has been so high means that we should still expect huge turnout on Election Day.

Adaora/The Takeaway: We've got a question from Elena.

[Comment From Elena]: I've been watching the past few elections from afar (not too far - Toronto) and wonder why you bother with all the technology since it always seems to break down or be suspect. In my riding this past year we just used the paper ballots and it works fine - there are lots of people to count them and the results come up in a timely manner.

Heather Gerken: The problem with paper ballots is that they take a long time to count and they don't work well in places like Los Angeles, where you might have 20 or 30 different kinds of languages spoken in the area, meaning that you'll need stacks of paper ballots in lots of languages.

Heather Gerken: Pollling places are also really understaffed here, unlike Canada, so machines can save a lot of human hours in counting.

Adaora/The Takeaway: But wait a second, that's how they do it the United Kingdom. A good old piece of paper and a pencil. Isn't it simpler, just hire more people?

Adaora/The Takeaway: Not to mention, I don't recall hearing about problems counting votes in the UK?

Heather Gerken: A simple piece of paper works well in a system that works well. We don't have a system that works well.

Heather Gerken: Unlike the UK and most other developed democracies, our system is vastly underfunded, staffed by too many amateurs, and too often run by partisans.

Heather Gerken: It's a systemic problem -- machines or paper can't cure these problems. We need to do more to build up our democratic infrastructure.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Okay, given the economic turmoil, two wars the US is waging and an ailing healthcare system where is the political will and money going to come from to overhaul the entire system?

Heather Gerken: This is the same problem we have with our physical infrastructure -- deferred maintenance. Bridges, roads, etc. are all neglected. The same is true of our electoral infrastructure.

Heather Gerken: Luckily, in some senses we are so far behind the curve we are ahead of it. For instance, we could build really good data-collection systems using today's technology much more cheaply than countries that did this 15 years ago.

Adaora/The Takeaway: But how does voting and counting the votes become a priority above things like bridges?

Heather Gerken: Fair enough. I'll just say this. The vote is our most precious noncommodity. People marched for it, gave their lives for it.

Heather Gerken: The costs of fixing this problem are modest compared to what we are spending in other areas. And the risks of not fixing the problem -- another Bush v. Gore, which undermined people's faith in democracy -- are significant.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Let's go back to poll workers. I've read the average age of volunteers is somewhere in their 70's. It's hard to recruit volunteers ... how do you get more people involved and trained?

Heather Gerken: The number is a bit of a myth. In some states poll workers are old; in others they aren't. But it's a huge, huge problem. Every state has trouble staffing the polls.

Heather Gerken: I'd like to see students get involved. College students and graduate students would be perfect for the job -- engaged, energetic, and technologically savvy (they'll have fewer problems with the machines).

Heather Gerken: Imagine that every local college committed to staffing polling places in the area. It would be huge benefit to the community and a good way to get people engaged in the democratic process.

Adaora/The Takeaway: What kind of training are poll workers lacking and how do you think it effects the credibility of the process?

Heather Gerken: Poll workers are often trained for just a few hours. They aren't familiar enough with the machines, and they aren't trained in basic protocols. That's why we see voting machines not working in many cases. That's why we see so many people improperly asked for voter id even when state law doesn't require it.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Here's a question from Regina.

[Comment From Regina]: Quite ffrankly, I'm very concerned about voting fraud - especially not counting votes for suspect reasons. Can you calm my fears, or are those fears well founded?

Heather Gerken: I think the real cure for this issue is information. Most experts in the field think that in-person voting fraud -- the kind of thing everyone worries about -- almost never happens. Experts are generally more worried about things like chain of custody rules (who counts the ballots, who has access to the machines and the ballot boxes).

Adaora/The Takeaway: Regina ... I've done this story so many times. Every election cycle there are fraud accusations. To date there has never been any evidence that voter fraud has influenced the outcome of a national election. In fact, prosecutions of voter fraud is almost non-existent.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Shannon has another question about the increasingly dreaded electoral college.

[Comment From Shannon]: From a political and/or legal perspective, why do you think lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are so reluctant to address controversy surrounding the Electoral College?

Heather Gerken: There's a more general issue that Shannon has identified. Politicians rarely do much to fix electoin problems. One reason is that voters only put pressure on them when they see a problem, and problems are only visible when the election is close.

Heather Gerken: The other reason is that the solution most people think we need is nonpartisan administration of elections. But the partisans who run the elections are loathe to give up their power -- it's the power to help their party and hurt the other guy. In election circles, we call is by shorthand -- foxes guarding the henhouse.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Here's another question about how other countries handle voting, this one from Mike.

[Comment From mike]: I was listening to another PRI show (the world) and they said places like ireland went back to paper balloting as there is no real way to have a secure voting machine

Heather Gerken: My own favorite solution is optiscan -- the ballots that look like those sheets you filled in on your SATs.

Heather Gerken: They are easy to count with machines but they also leave a paper trail in case of a recount or controversy.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Okay, so Heather why don' t more places use them?

Heather Gerken: Two reasons. First, when states were making these decisions, they didn't have the resources to vet the computer systems properly. That means they were making purchasing decisions with too little information. Here the states or federal government should have done a better job of creating standards.

Heather Gerken: Second, places like LA (with lots and lots of different languages spoken) find it easier to have a computer that can be programmed with the right language rather than print out separate paper ballots.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Mike has an interesting follow-up.

[Comment From mike]: optiscan has issues for people with disabilities doesn't it?

Heather Gerken: That's right. But the better solution, in my view, is to find a way to accommodate people with disabilities -- e.g., one machine in each precinct built for people with disabilities -- rather than use the same technology for everyone.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Last year you proposed something called the democracy index. You talked a bit about it on the show ... give us some more detail on why you think it's a good idea?

Heather Gerken: The Democracy Index is the first step to bigger and better reform. It would measure the basic things that matter to voters -- how long were the lines, how many ballots got discarded, how many machines broke down. The reason it's useful is that it gives people a yardstick for assessing the problem.

Heather Gerken: Right now, we are trying to measure annual rainfall based on when lightening strikes -- we only see problems when the election is so close that there's a crisis.

Heather Gerken: But the problems we saw in Florida and Ohio happen all the time -- it's just that the elections usually aren't close enough for it to matter. What we need is a way to see the problems that exist BEFORE a crisis occurs. And to give voters something to hold politicians' feet to the fire so they fix these problems.

Adaora/The Takeaway: It just sounds so simple. I was actually shocked that kind of data was not already being compiled. Mostly, stunned by the notion collecting that information was not mandated in the Help America Vote Act adopted in 2002 following the debacle in Florida.

Heather Gerken: HAVA did some good -- money for better technology, some useful changes to the way we register voters. But it was just addressing the symptoms we saw in Florida, not the underlying causes.

Heather Gerken: That's why the Democracy Index -- which both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- put into legislation -- is a good first step. It will give us a read on the problems and help us figure out the best solutions. It should smooth the path for bigger and better reform in the future.

Adaora/The Takeaway: What will be different this time around given the states have had time to fully adopt HAVA and how much money are you talking about?

Heather Gerken: Sad to say, the states have been very slow to comply with HAVA, which is why you are going to see problems in the registration process (this is the first time for some states using the new system). But the new machinery will make a difference -- many states invested wisely, and we'll see fewer discarded ballots because of the money HAVA provided.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Finally, some good news! (smile) Last question when you think about what's happening on the voting front between now and November 4th ... what keeps you up at night?

Heather Gerken: I worry about the turnout tsunami. So many voters arrive on election day that it puts more pressure on the system than it can bear. But this, of course, is a happiness problem. It's a good sign for our democracy if a lot of people want to have their say on November 4th.

Adaora/The Takeaway: Excellent. Thank you so very much for your time, your brilliance and you're good cheer. Have a wonderful weekend!!!

Heather Gerken: Thanks for having me -- this was a lot of fun.

The Takeaway: There's more information on Heather Gerken's "Democracy Index" on Yale's website here. This Q&A will be archived on our website. And we're still talking about the election process and early voting online and on air as part of The Takeaway's America's Exit Poll.


Heather Gerken

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Adaora Udoji


Christina M. Russo


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