Holding Power Accountable

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, December 13, 2004)


Common Cause takes “holding power accountable” as its slogan, and the non-partisan organization has worked on a variety of open-government issues since its founding in 1970. A partial list of its accomplishments includes helping pass the 26th Amendment, the Freedom of Information Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. This year, the group set up a nationwide hotline for citizens to report voting problems, has called for Tom DeLay to step down for violations of ethics rules, and co-sponsored Voting 2004: A Report to the Nation, an event highlighting the many voting problems that citizens experienced on Election Day.

After eight years in Maine’s state Senate, including four as majority leader, Chellie Pingree became the president of Common Cause in the spring of 2003. She recently stopped by the office to talk about voting concerns, money in politics, and the importance of staying engaged. Based on the calls Common Cause’s hotline received, what systemic problems did you find in this year’s election?

Chellie Pingree: We got probably 200,000 calls from our voter hotline. Almost universally across the country there were problems, and they followed certain patterns. We’ve paid more attention nationally to Ohio and Florida because of the recount and because Florida was such a mess. But voting was a problem almost everywhere. There were enormous problems with absentee ballots. Voter registration was still not very good. Lots of calls about long lines, which has more to do with where we place the voting machines and whether they’re equitably distributed. Lots of problems with provisional ballots. A fair amount of voter suppression, issues like people being told, “If you have unpaid traffic violations, you’ll be arrested when you to vote,” or students being told they’ll lose their student aid if they vote in the wrong place. Things that are fraud and lies. So it was interesting across the board.

For us, besides wanting to help people on Election Day and make sure that every vote gets counted, we’re also really concerned about electoral reform. That goes from making sure there’s a paper trail on voting machines to things like having a rule that says there should be one machine per 100 voters and it should be uniform. Those long lines in Ohio and everywhere else were basically because of how the machines were distributed. We should anticipate that voters want to vote, and there should be machines there for them. There should be clear rules about how provisional ballots are treated, clear rules about what’s an allowable challenge. And then, things like same-day registration also help to alleviate the problems on Election Day. Because if it turns out you weren’t on the list, and you couldn’t go register when you found out, you lost your right to vote. After the 2000 election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. What, if anything, from that legislation worked well in this election?

CP: The idea of a provisional ballot was important in those places where they were properly administered. The problem was Congress was looking to reform the concerns that had developed after the election of 2000, but didn’t give very clear guidance. So, for instance, you had a lot of different states deciding how to handle provisional ballots differently. And Congress didn’t adequately fund it. So while it was clear that we needed upgrading of machines in states around the country, not enough money was allocated. Congress didn’t develop standards for the new voting machines, so clearly there were problems with how the electronic-voting machines were audited and used. Also, people forget that a lot of election administration is very local, and we think there has to be more state-by-state improvement in how the voting laws are administered. The other thing of concern to us is partisan election officials. The two highest-profile states that we’ve focused our attention on as a country have been Florida and Ohio, and both of them had elections officials were also very prominent in campaigns. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on, that asks questions about the administration of elections at all levels under partisan officials. Were there states that did a particularly good job in this election and serve as models?

CP: Well, Maine was a particularly good state. Not just because it’s my hometown. (laughs) Many of the things that we’re talking about, they’ve corrected with legislation. They have same-day registration. They have a rule about the number of voting machines required per district, so it has to be uniform. They’re very strict about challenges — you have to live in the district if you’re going to challenge the voter, and you have to be clear about the reasons for the challenge; they can’t just be frivolous or done to intimidate people. And the truth is, they still depend on paper. They have paper ballots and optical scans, which are still fairly dependable in terms of the comparison with other voting techniques. And it’s kind of a small-town state, so people have a tendency to be more aware of their elected officials, and there’s more local supervision of the elections. Recounts are currently planned in Ohio and New Hampshire, plus the Washington governor’s race. Is there anywhere else where you think recounts should be considered?

CP: There’s some confusion about the value of a recount. Even in Ohio, while people may be hoping that the recount will overturn the election — which is a separate matter — it won’t necessarily reveal some of the most fundamental problems. In Ohio, we’ll know if they counted the punch-cards right, but we can’t really audit the electronic voting machines — all you can do is ask the machine to tell you the tally again. And you can’t go after fundamental problems like why there were such long lines and why there weren’t enough voting machines in places that had high voter turnout. I’m actually not a supporter of more recounts. I’m a supporter of trying to get more information about what happened with the voting machines and then asking people some of these questions about how resources were allocated. Who got trained poll workers? Who had enough help? How were voters treated? Where were the voting machines placed? What can the federal government do to encourage states to be more uniform?

CP: There are reforms that came out of the Help America Vote Act that we should look at. Standards for provisional ballots. The federal government originally understood that it needed to allocate more money to the states, and it should actually do that. Really fund this, so that if states want to upgrade their voting machines or train their poll workers, they have the finances available to do it, because most states don’t have them. In an ideal world, the federal government would tie some of that to incentives about improving the rules around voting. I’m concerned about whether or not Congress will do that. But states can act without Congress’s assistance, and probably will have to. In addition to the first election after HAVA, this was the first election after the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform. How would you gauge the impact of that law?

CP: People had said that candidates wouldn’t be able to raise money anymore and the parties wouldn’t have access to funds. (laughs) And what we saw instead was an election that had more spending than we’d ever seen before. One of the great things was that small donors played a much bigger role. The Internet was a useful resource, and the fact was a little donation made a difference this time. There was plenty of money in the system, and many of us think there’s probably still too much money in the system. The good news was the role of McCain-Feingold was to break the link between big, unregulated amounts of money and connections with elected officials. And you couldn’t do that this time; you couldn’t give money to a party in that way.

Now, obviously, people were very concerned about the 527s. And clearly, in the end, all political points of view used them. I think Congress will go back and look at how to make sure that doesn’t become a back-door way to get around McCain-Feingold. The other concern is the presidential public-financing system, which was the first real post-Watergate innovation in how to change the influence of money in politics. And because both major candidates chose not to use it — both found that they could raise tremendous amounts of money without it — it’s going to be a real challenge to get Congress to fix that in such a way that candidates choose to use it again. It’s very, very important to have it. Not only because it’s the biggest public financing of any campaign in the country, but — particularly in the primaries — it allows a lot of people to participate; a lot of participants are able to get into it because of the public financing. You don’t want to turn this into a system where only well-known names or millionaires can participate. What’s the next step to preserve public financing?

CP: There will be a new bill introduced to Congress. And a lot of organizations like Common Cause will work very hard to convince Congress to increase the amount of money that’s available, to change the way the matching system works, and to redesign it so it deals with the front-loaded primaries we now have. We also want to see restrictions that say if you choose to participate in the primary, you have to participate in the general, because it kind of destroys the system if you don’t.

But we’re also very interested in state-based public financing. I’m a believer that states are laboratories in democracy, and the systems in Arizona and Maine are so well-crafted that they’re really works of art. Particularly in Maine, where the majority of candidates use the system, the public is very used to it. It not only breaks the link between the influence of money in the political process; it changes the candidate behavior. Most candidates today have to spend the majority of their time calling people and asking them to give money, going to fundraisers, meeting with an ever-diminishing group of voters who can give them lots of money, instead of those who need to hear from their local politician and be represented. So we’re very interested in trying to encourage more states to replicate what goes on in Maine and, in that way, attempt to eventually influence members of Congress to do the same at a federal level. Common Cause is also focusing on ethics in government. How have the complaints against Tom DeLay helped educate the public on that subject?

CP: People don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Gosh, I’ve got to do something about campaign-finance reform” or electoral reform or redistricting. But those are the fundamental issues that we have to deal with, and you often need a poster child who breaks so many rules that people start to understand. A company like Enron that gets people so upset they say “hey, you can’t have somebody influencing the political process that way.” You have to talk to people about what happens when, for example, the pharmaceutical industry gives enormous contributions, gets jobs in the government, and then passes a medical bill that works for them and not old people. You just have to make these connections.

Tom DeLay has been an amazing breaker of the rules, who has helped a lot of people understand why there are rules about transferring federal dollars to states, or how someone can set up charities that are just shams to bring money into the political process. And it also helps people to understand how the rules of Congress and its ethics rules are critical to having a good process in a democracy. We’re extremely concerned about this particular Congress, which has already started to roll back most of the quote-unquote reforms that Newt Gingrich put in place when he came to “clean up” the Congress. So Republicans are actually undoing many of their own reforms. DeLay has also made redistricting more of a visible issue.

CP: Right. Redistricting isn’t part of household conversation, but the challenges that happened in Texas — the fact that the legislators had to actually pack up and go to another state to hide out, and then there were serious gains made this year by the Republicans in Congress because of the redistricting — helped people to understand why this is a problem. There were more contested congressional battles in Iowa in 2002 than there were in New York and California combined, and the notion that incumbents are automatically returned to office, both because of the way the district lines are drawn and because of their incredible advantage in raising money, really takes away the opportunity for voters to change their elected officials away. So we’re very interested in looking at new ways of drawing district lines to make them less vulnerable to the political process.

We have to be clear here: both political parties use it to their advantage when they’re the majority in the state legislature, and there’s a national interest in having control of the state legislatures so certain parties can draw the district lines. All that’s bad for democracy. There are a variety of models for doing it in a different way. For example, Iowa has a non-partisan commission that makes this decision based on population factors and other considerations, but not on “how do I make sure my friend gets voted their seat.” I think that’s a huge, significant issue. Again, it’s not something like health care that people think about every day. But in the end, it practically determines how health-care policy is going to be made, because people don’t feel like they’re accountable to the voters if they can count on getting re-elected. How do you balance all these various reforms going forward, and how do you keep people involved now that the election’s over?

CP: I don’t think each person has to be held responsible for thinking about this as a grand plan for a perfect democracy, but I don’t think all of us who work on these issues can leave any of them off the plate. Because trying to say it’s only about the influence of money in politics, or saying we’ll be okay just if every vote counts, is leaving out some things that are increasingly becoming problems in this country. In a funny way, I think voters and citizens are much more aware of the fundamentals of democracy right now because of all these high-profile activities going on. We try to give people an opportunity to either take it to their local level, to talk to their member of Congress, to testify to their state legislature, whatever it takes to take an action on this that might make a difference.

People often have a tendency to say, “what’s Congress going to do about that?” Half the time, Congress is going to do nothing about it. What really drives Congress is when constituents let members know how they feel, and you can see enormous opportunities there. And also, what happens in the states. We often forget how much policy is changed at a state level, and that’s critical for two reasons. It affects our daily lives, often even more than what Congress does, and when you get a critical mass of states doing something, you can often move Congress. Now, as we face potential one-party control of Congress and some real logjams on issues that people want to deal with, they’ve got to think about local actions they can take and how to be more engaged in state legislatures — where you can often connect with your elected official, or have a real influence on a piece of policy without too many people being engaged. A lot of things we need to fix will be easier to fix at a state level. Having seen so many citizens of all political beliefs get incredibly engaged in this election, it will be extremely important to make sure that everybody still feels like a participant, that they find those ways to stay engaged and involved and use this incredible political muscle people have developed to move forward on the things they care about.

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