Monday, December 13, 2004

Jimmy Carter on NPR's "Fresh Air"

NPR : Fresh Air from WHYY for Thursday, October 21, 2004

Back in October, former president Jimmy Carter appeared on "Fresh Air" and spoke at length with host Terry Gross about U.S. elections. The entire interview is available online in audio format. Below are excerpts from the transcript.


GROSS: President Jimmy Carter is my guest and his novel, "The Hornet's Nest," which is a Revolutionary War novel, has just been published in paperback.

One of the things you do with your Carter Center is to monitor elections around the world, and you've monitored over 50 elections around the world. We are facing a US presidential election here and I'm wondering if America was a foreign country and it had asked you to monitor the election, would it meet your criteria. Could you monitor the American elections if you were asked?

Mr. CARTER: No. We wouldn't think of it. The American political system wouldn't measure up to any sort of international standard for several reasons. One is that there has to be a provision in the countries where we monitor--we've just finished our 52nd one--that all the qualified candidates have equal access to the public through the media, through television and radio, and they don't have to pay for it. Whereas in this country, there's no way that you can hope to be the nominee of the Democratic or Republican Party unless you have the proven ability to raise nowadays $100 million, contributions from special interest groups. Some of the interest groups are benevolent, I might hasten to add. That's one thing. We wouldn't qualify.

GROSS: Why do you have that as a qualification, as a criteria?

Mr. CARTER: Why?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CARTER: Well, because we think that the ability to run for office and be seriously considered as a candidate should not depend on how much money you can collect to pay for the right to give your campaign platform explanations to the public.

GROSS: OK. Other reasons why we would not fulfil your criteria.

Mr. CARTER: The second reason is: We don't go into a country unless there is a central election commission that is recognized generally as being non-partisan or bipartisan, and that is a balanced position between or among the different parties. We have nothing like that. As you know in Florida, in the year 2000, the secretary of State there who was in charge of the Florida election was an avowed and fervent and very obvious Republican activist.

GROSS: This is Katherine Harris.

Mr. CARTER: Katherine Harris, and she was later elected to Congress because of the Republicans appreciated what she did for President Bush. And this time, the new secretary of State, who replaced Katherine Harris, was not elected, she was appointed to that very important partisan position by the governor who happens to be President Bush's brother. So there's no semblance of a balanced commission that would be objective among the different candidates. I mean, they don't even deny the fact that they are fervent Republican activists.

Another facet of requirements is that all the people in a country or certainly a state should vote in exactly the same way, either punch cards or touch screens or whatever. Whereas in Florida and many other states, it depends on which preferences the county officials have. So you might have like in Florida in 2000, multiple ways to vote. And quite often, the more affluent districts or precincts are the most certain to have the votes counted accurately because the rich people insist on it. Whereas the poor people don't really have the political

influence to insist that their votes be handled properly. That's another very important facet.

And the third thing is that--a fourth thing I think now, is that if there is a technological advanced way to vote, there must be some way for a physical recount if it's very close. We just finished an election not too long ago in a Third World country that had a touch-screen technique, the system was developed in the United States, previously in Spain, but in addition to casting their vote, after they punched the touch screen final button, out comes a paper ballot showing you exactly how you voted. So you look at the paper ballot and you make sure that that is the way I wanted my vote to be cast and then you fold the ballot and put it in a box. So afterwards, if there is a doubt about the technology or the touch-screen techniques, since it's all secret and you can't see it and you can recount by using the paper ballot.


GROSS: What do we do now with the electronic voting machines that don't have any kind of way of recounting? We're just, you know, days away from the election.

Mr. CARTER: I think now it's just too late. You can't change a whole technology. But when we have gone into countries, as I say, we have insisted whenever possible that there be a paper trail and the technology is completely available. In fact, the same companies that prepare these machines with the printed affirmation are the ones that we've used in other countries.

GROSS: What's your best guess about why we're not using the ones with the paper trail?

Mr. CARTER: Part of it, I think, is the pride of America. You know, we don't need other people to tell us how to run our elections. We are the greatest democracy on Earth. We are above any outside criticism. That's part of it is pride, and I would say sovereignty of our country or our state. Another one is that there are people who are very deeply interested in maintaining the outcome of the election under partial control. Our country favors incumbents strongly.


GROSS: Now let me ask you, though, some of the electronic voting machines being used in the country are manufactured by the Diebold Company.

Mr. CARTER: Yes.

GROSS: The head of that company is a very partisan, very pro-Republican. Some people think that that means that those machines might be tampered with, that there might be partisan interference. Other people see that as a really silly conspiratorial point of view. From your point of view, is that something we should be concerned about?

Mr. CARTER: I think it is. I would like to see there be a uniform standard around this nation before the next presidential election, at least, that any machine used of a touch-screen type had to have a paper trail so that you could subsequently monitor or confirm the accuracy of the vote as just. And in most touch-screen systems, including those of the Diebold Company, I understand, there's no way to recount. You have to trust the manufacturer of the machine and you have to trust the people who set the machine up, who program it, and you have to trust the people who get the decipherment of the vote out of the machine when the election's over.


GROSS: There's so much concern about whether the election will be fair and whether the votes will be fairly counted and there are so many lawsuits in the works now, do you think that elections have become more problematic than they've ever been before? Do you think that's just a question of the fact that the election was so close in 2000 that we're more sensitive to inaccuracies that have actually always existed?

Mr. CARTER: I don't have any sound evidence on which to base my answer. But my own opinion is that there have always been improprieties and distorted results promulgated by powerful local and state election officials. And it was only the Florida debacle that was going to result in the choice of a president that became so highly visible for the first time. My guess is that in the state of Georgia and in the state of Florida and maybe in the state of Pennsylvania and obviously there have been allegations about Illinois--when John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon, there were claims that 120 votes were transferred to Kennedy by Mayor Daley and others. So I think that in the past, there have been those improprieties and a distortion of accuracy. I think now it may be a healthy thing that because of the year 2000 in Florida, that people are more aware of a threat and maybe there'll be some more cleansing.

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