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President Bush and Former President Carter Discuss Election Reform

Aired July 31, 2001 - 11:00   ET



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... as guidelines for meaningful reform.

I want to welcome former President Jimmy Carter back to the Rose Garden and to the Oval Office.


Former President Gerald Ford could not be with us today but he is well represented by House Minority Leader Bob Michel. Thank you for being here, Mr. Leader.


I want to thank Philip Zelikow for being the executive director of the commission. I want to thank all the commission members who are here, and I appreciate the attorney general for being here as well. Thanks for coming, John.

Our American democracy is really an inspiration to the world, yet the work for improving it is never finished. Presidents Jimmy Carter and and Gerald Ford, two men who took part in another close election I might add and who went on to have a close friendship, have come together to produce recommendations for modernizing the electoral system.

I want to thank the University of Virginia's Miller Center and the Century Foundation as well.

Mr. Carter and Mr. Ford recruited a commission of 20 distinguished Americans from both parties in every region of the country. I respect the members so much that I appointed one of them to become the ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker. The others continue to take testimony. They held hearings in four states, listened to dozen of witnesses and consulted widely with state and local officials. They identified some important concerns. For example, the over-eagerness of the media to report the outcome of the elections.


Some voting methods have much higher error rates than others and citizens with disabilities or limited proficiency in English can counter obstacles to the exercise of their democratic rights. The commissioners brought a broad diversity of personal experience to bear. Seven commissioners, in addition to President Ford and President Carter, have been elected to office themselves and have seen America's voting procedures up close and personal. Other members had experience enforcing our nation's civil rights and voting rights laws. Other are experts in constitutional law and the mechanics of government. This commission's idealism is reinforced by deep practical experience. Commissioners offer many recommendations to strengthen our electoral system. Those recommendations are grounded in four fundamental principles which I heartily endorse and recommend to the Congress: First, our nation must continue to respect the primary role of state, county and local governments in elections. In 2000, more than 100 million Americans cast votes and more than 190,000 polling places under the supervision of 1.4 million poll workers.

Our nation is vast and diverse, and our elections should not be run out of Washington, D.C.

Second, the federal government can have a limited but responsible role in assisting states and localities to solve their problems with election administration, so that our voting technologies and practices respect the value of every eligible vote.

Third, we must actively and vigorously enforce the laws that protect the voting rights of ethnic and racial minorities, of citizens who do not speak English fluently and of the elderly and persons with disabilities.

Let me say, by the way, how pleased I am that the commission, occasionally, cited the great state of Texas for its good work.

Fourth and finally, we must act to uphold the voting rights of members of the armed services and of Americans living abroad. We must safeguard absentee ballots against abuse. We must ensure that those Americans who risk their lives to defend American democracy are never prevented from participating in American democracy.

These are some of the core principles underlying the commission's report. And they are principles that should guide us all. I commend the commissioners for their statesmen-like work. They have risen above partisan emotions, put forth practical suggestions for improving democracy. And the United States Congress should listen to them and follow their lead.

It's now my honor to call back to the podium a man who has been here quite often in the past, the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.


JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, first of all, let me say that I'm very grateful that President Bush would invite us back. I do feel at home here. We've done a lot of interesting things while I was in the Rose Garden and in the Oval Office, and it's a pleasure to come back and be with my friend, George W. Bush.

This election commission is comprised of 28 members, about as diverse a group as you could possibly imagine, almost equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, chosen because of their deep, sometimes life-long interest in the electoral process in our country, and each one came to the commission, I think, with an agenda of his or her own, but with a determination to come out with a report that was consistent with the basic principles of our country, and we have done that.

The last sessions that we had were at the University of Virginia at the Miller Center, where Phil Zelikow works. And it was nine and a half hours of intense debate. And I might say, that eventually we came out with a consensus that is represented in the final report.

I'm very sorry today that President Ford can't be here, because he's been a very active member. President Bush mentioned the four places that we have met in four different states. As a matter of fact, they happen to have been at the Carter Center in Atlanta -- the Carter Library -- at the Reagan Library, at the Bush Library and at the Ford Library. And President Ford presided when we were at his place, and I presided when we were at my place. So you can see that even in the places we had a bipartisan attitude.

I'm just briefly going to outline the recommendations made. I hope that everyone here will take a complete report and read it, because it is filled not only with the 13 overall recommendations but the explanation of why we reached that conclusion and also some of the principles that would enforce the importance of those.

We do recognize the importance of the states. And the first recommendation that we would like to emphasize today is that each state should devise a uniform voter registration system and enforce it. Now, this is done by individual counties; there more than 4,000 of them, and this creates a great deal of confusion.

The second one is that the voters who come to the polling place on Election Day quite often have found some confusion about whether or not they are qualified, and we are recommending provisional balloting. In that, if someone does come and say, "I have a right to vote at this precinct," and the voting officials either can't find the name or because they claimed that that person has gotten an absentee ballot in advance, the voter has a right to cast a ballot. And it's sealed in an envelope. And later after the election is over -- Election Day is over -- that the integrity of the ballot is ascertained, and it is counted if that person has actually qualified to vote there and is not registered at other places.

As you can see, with 159 different voting places and different election lists in Georgia -- we have that many counties, in Texas they have 200 -- you'd have 159 or 200 places. Now we recommend that each state does it individually.

Third, that there would be a national holiday in which to have the election. One suggestion has been that this be combined with Veterans Day. President Ford is a veteran. I'm a veteran. A lot of the members of the commission are veterans. We're not trying to impose our will on that subject, but one of the recommendations is -- a majority of us agreed -- that that be seriously considered. We do think that it should be a national holiday.

The next one is that overseas voting should be made clearer and fairer and less confusing. The absentee ballots for military persons overseas or Americans living overseas would be greatly expedited by having one central voter registration point, which we recommend. So we have some recommendations on how that can be done.

Another one is, as President Bush has already mentioned, that the news media not project winners in any states until all 48 contiguous states have finished their voting process and the polls have closed. This would not include Alaska and Hawaii, which would delay it too much. And this would be hopefully a voluntary commitment by the major networks and the major cable companies. If they don't do it, then we recommend that Congress take action. We recognize that there are First Amendment principles involved, but we think this is an important one.

Next, that each state would be required to set uniform standards, both for the performance of voting procedures -- punch cards, the mechanical kind, scanning, paper ballots -- and that there be a standard required that there would be no more than a 2 percent error, either over-votes or under-votes. Two percent seems like a large number, but this also includes about three-quarters of one percent, which has been ascertained by some of the studies we made, of people who didn't want to vote at all and deliberately did not vote. So this would be a uniform standard that the state would set, and the performance of the machines or procedures would be ascertained.

Another one is that felons should be permitted to vote after they complete their sentence or their probation period, at the latest. Some states now, to my surprise, do not permit felons ever to vote again, and this would set a minimum standard for permitting them to vote and become citizens after they serve their time. Another recommendation is that the Congress appropriate a modest amount of money, $1 to $2 billion over a three or four year period, which would be about $300 million a year, and this would establish a revolving fund which could go to the states if they meet their matching requirements and to be used to carry out all these recommendations.

By the way, some of the legislation now, already introduced in the Congress, has a higher level recommended. And we believe and the president agrees that this is a very modest amount.

Another recommendation that we made is that there be established an election administration commission. This would be a small group, not more than five people, hopefully with a majority nonpartisan leaders of such a high quality of American citizenship and with such a high degree of trust by the American people that they would be beyond repute. And if there be partisan representatives, that they be a minority group, but obviously balanced.

The other thing that we recommended, except for what Bob Michel is going to cover is, that all television networks should be encouraged to provide five minutes a day, free of charge, for use by presidential candidates who have qualified for matching funds for the last 30 days of the campaign.

So for 30 days, five minutes a day would be used for those major candidates to present their views to the American people. And it could be done in any fashion by a forum with Hispanics or, say, with African-Americans or with college students asking questions or anyway the candidates prefer. We believe that this would be a major contribution.

And we're also recommending that the networks provide free time for instruction of candidates -- instruction of voters -- rather, on how they should cast their ballots.

These are the major provisions that we are putting forward. One of the key questions was whether this should be mandated by Congress or encouraged by other means.

And I'm going to call now on former majority leader, Bob Michel, who served in a noble way on the commission as one of its leaders to explain that point.

Thank you very much, Mr. President.


ROBERT H. MICHEL, FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE (R-IL): Well, President Bush and President Carter, fellow commissioners and distinguished guests, I'm honored to speak today on behalf of my good friend and commission co-chair, President Gerald Ford. As President Carter's inspired remarks so clearly indicate, this commission has been blessed by the active attention and commitment of both Presidents Ford and Carter. Last month, President Ford chaired one of the commissions public hearings at the Library named in his honor in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Incidentally, Mr. President, that Texas one was at the LBJ Center.

We wanted to be sure that it was bipartisan: Two Republican senators and two Democrat senators, and, of course, President Ford has been very active in the commission's deliberations throughout the process.

Now, his warm friendship with President Carter and their collaboration in this effort truly embodied the highest ideals of public service, bipartisanship and what it means to be an American.

Voting is the most basic activity of citizenship, and it's most enriching. We believe that recommendations in this report will ensure that our nation's elections at every level will be both fair and honest for all Americans who choose to participate. It will make it easier for citizens to register and vote, both here at home and as well as for our dedicated military personnel stationed overseas.

It will help make our voting rules more accurate and less susceptible to fraud. It'll guarantee that technology will meet standards for effectiveness and that each state's ballot counts and recounts will be uniform and objective. Most importantly, it provides an excellent basis for federal and state cooperation ensuring that future elections will make every American proud and confident in our democratic process.

And the problems highlighted in Florida last November are problems that plagued many precincts across the country. Election reform is an issue that Congress and this administration will need to take a long, hard look at. I'm confident, however, that because of the rigorous study and debate that occurred within our own commission, this report provides an excellent model of the kind of broad consensus that can and should be achieved on this issue.

You know, one of my former colleagues, Barbara Jordan, from the other side of the aisle, in my days in the House, once said, "What the American people want is simple, they want an America as good as its promise." I hope the Congress and the administration will pick up on our commission's recommendations to strengthen and ensure the promise of democracy in every voting booth and precinct across the great country.

And as you indicated, Mr. President, that principle of conditionality verses mandating the states to do things is a very key one, I know for many members of the Congress who eventually will have to act on this, but very controversial. We had the discussion in the commission and there will be a discussion I know in both Houses of Congress on all these issues, and that's the way it should be.

Mr. President, I thank you for the opportunity to be in such select company as two presidents representing President Ford. Thank you for your attention.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Quite select company, indeed. We haven't seen Bob Michel at the White House in a long time. He was, as you heard there, the former minority leader for the Republicans a few years ago -- Jimmy Carter there -- President Carter.

They're laying out the report that their commission came up with and the recommendations that they are making to change and to prevent from happening again what we saw happen in this past fall's elections.

Our John King, our senior White House correspondent, has been listening in -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The president, the former president and Mr. Michel there, Leon, all looking forward -- only a few veiled references, polite references to all those controversies we went through during election night, and then the ensuing 36-day recount in the state of Florida -- the president, for one, saying he would like it if we in the news business don't project the results until the polls close.

You'll remember, he was furious on election night, when networks, including this one, first projected Al Gore as the winner of Florida. That was the beginning of the turmoil we went through for some 36 days -- Mr. Carter also saying it would be helpful if states had uniform registration and if more was done to guarantee overseas voting by the military.

That was another controversy in the state of Florida: counting overseas military absentee ballots -- but all the leaders being polite today as they look forward to this debate. You heard President Bush endorse the principles. White House aides say he does not want to get into a debate right now about every specific recommendation in this proposal. But he is very happy, we are told, that this report recommends that the states, not Washington, still take primacy in deciding how voters register, how to go about recounts if they are necessary.

So this debate now leaves the White House. It is already under way in the Congress. It doesn't get as much attention as some believe -- but the president is happy that this report recommends, A, that the states keep charge of elections, and that not as much money go out of Washington to help the states, as many in Congress think is necessary -- Leon.

HARRIS: All right, thank you much, John King, there at the White House.

We will continue our focus on this topic, as Donna Kelley continues on.


Election law expert David Cardwell, as you might well remember, spent a lot of time on CNN during the five weeks of the Florida election dispute. And he joins us this hour from Orlando.

Hello, David. Nice to have you join us.


KELLEY: Well, as we look at these recommendations that they're talking about, some of these things are supposed to be in place already. But it looked like they fell through during the election. So now, if you were look at these recommendations, what do you think they have to do to get them in place and get it going?

CARDWELL: Well, what struck me about the recommendations is that they say a lot of things that we knew the system needed anyway. They were fairly straightforward. But what it also represents is a centralization of the election process, though at the state level.

But it also starts us down a path of a lot more federal involvement in the administration of elections. But many of the recommendations that this commission has proposed have already been adopted in Florida, when the legislature adopted election reform this spring. So I was pleased to see that this commission also went a long way, in the same manner that the Florida legislature did, in identifying problems that needed to be corrected immediately. KELLEY: Yes, a couple of senior administration officials told CNN that they are still going to respect the roles of state and local governments as well. Some people were confused by the ballots. Some equipment didn't work. Those are a couple of things that they want to talk about in these 13 recommendations.

Get it uniform. Is that where you would start?

CARDWELL: Well, that I think is clearly coming from the Supreme Court decision in Bush vs. Gore, when the court talked about equal protection and how everything needed to be treated alike.

But it's still going to very, very difficult, with the number of voting precincts, the number of ballot styles, the number of elections that are done at any one time -- particularly in conjunction with a presidential election -- to be able to have everything completely uniform. That's why there's still got to be a lot of local input and local administration of the elections.

What I would like to see is to have a much lighter ballot, so to speak, for the presidential election, because that's the election that has the big turnout. And what happens is, all of the state and local governments put their elections on the same ballot. It loads up the ballot. It gets people confused. I would have liked to have seen a recommendation that said, in a presidential election, it's just the president and federal office, and keep everything else off.

KELLEY: Yes, and it might even be a holiday, they are recommending. So we'll see if that happens.

David Cardwell, election expert, with us, thanks very much. And I'm sure we'll be talking to you again.

CARDWELL: Thank you.

KELLEY: And in fact, later today on CNN, former President Jimmy Carter will join Judy Woodruff for more talk of election reform. We'll get a little bit more into this. And for his perspective, you can tune into "INSIDE POLITICS." It comes your way at 5:00 p.m. Eastern, which is 2:00 Pacific.



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