The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Universal Voter Registration
JIM LEHRER: Good evening. Robert MacNeil is off tonight. Candidate Jimmy Carter told the Democratic National Convention last July it`s time for universal voter registration. But now, nearly a year later, President Carter`s plan to accomplish it has run into problems. There was supposed to have been a vote in Congress this week on an administration proposal to allow people to register at the polling place on Election Day. But there will be no vote this week; it was postponed a few weeks because the proposal, thought to be in good shape with the support of the Democratic majority as well as some bipartisan support from the Republicans, is in trouble. Local election officials, Southern Democrats, Republicans and others have come down hard on the idea, claiming that it will be impossible to administer and will encourage vote fraud among other things.
Tonight, a look at that Election Day idea, the pros and the cons as well as its political chances for survival, first with one of the key architects of the Carter proposal, Richard Moe, Chief of Staff to Vice President Walter Mondale. The administration plan is patterned after a system used in the State of Minnesota, the home state of both Vice President Mondale and Mr. Moe. Mr. Moe in fact was the State Democratic Chairman there before joining the Mondale staff. Mr. Moe, what would this new system accomplish?
RICHARD MOE: Basically, we think it would accomplish a higher turnout of vote on Election Day. As you know, our national participation in elections has been steadily declining for the last few decades. Whereas in 1960 some sixty-three percent of the electorate -those eligible -- voted, this last year that dropped to fifty-three percent, and we think it`s still sliding. It`s gotten to-the point where unfortunately America has the lowest voter turnout of any democracy in the world except the country of Botswana. Every other country has a higher turnout. Now, there`s a lot of reasons for this. There`s a lot of apathy, alienation -- whatever you care to call it; but there`s also a problem of access to the polls. We think that the barriers that are erected by :most state registration laws are unnecessary barriers and do, in fact, impede a lot of people from going down to the courthouse and registering. You know, most courthouses are only open a limited number of hours a week, and they happen to be those same hours that a lot of people have to work. The elderly have a difficult problem. Plus there`s the increasing problem in our society of mobility. One out of every four families moves every year. And when you move, usually registering to vote somehow, unfortunately, is on the bottom of your priority list of things to do. And unfortunately what happens in all these cases is that once the interest in the election reaches its peak, in the last thirty days, most states have cut off the registration period; it`s too late to register, and many people who want to vote, who want to participate in our system, find it impossible to do so. So what we`re trying to do is to develop a system that allows people to register on Election Day in a way that we think maintains, if not strengthens, the integrity of the electoral process, and thereby strengthens our whole electoral process.
LEHRER: Do you feel that the registration problem is the single most important cause of people not voting?
MOE: No, I don`t think it is. I think that we have more fundamental problems in our society that we have to address, but in other ways. The registration problem is probably a secondary problem; at least, so the surveys show. There are some surveys which show that somewhere between twenty and twenty-five percent of the seventy million people who did not vote last year regard registration as the chief barrier to their voting. So we don`t claim that this is any panacea, that it`s going to shoot the participation rates up to eighty or ninety percent, but we think we can reverse this trend and get more people into the system and thereby strengthen our country.
LEHRER: President Carter told the Auto Workers` Convention last week that some powerful special interests are trying to kill this proposal "because they don`t want working people to register and to vote." Do you agree with the President, is that what`s happened to you and your bill?
MOE: I agree that there are some powerful special interests that would just as soon not see this bill passed. There are, unfortunately, people who probably won`t admit it publicly, but they`re not as interested in having people vote as we would hope they might be. We don`t view this as a partisan measure; rather, we view this as a measure which will create a new bloc of voters, if you will, which are going to be pretty much up for grabs between the two parties. And I think by doing so we`ll strengthen our entire system.
LEHRER: All right. Mr. Moe, thank you. Another view now from another Minnesotan, Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel. Congressman Frenzel is considered the GOP`s top election law expert in Congress, and he doesn`t like the Carter-Mondale-Moe plan at all. Congressman, you`re not going along with your fellow Minnesotans. Why not?
Rep. BILL FRENZEL: In the first place, there is not a very good prospect of increasing the voting participation in the United States through this mechanism. The figures that exist -- really, we just have one election in Wisconsin and a couple in Minnesota -- do not indicate any great bonanza of extra voters drawn to the polls. It is alienation, a1 Tack of alternatives, failure of smaller parties to get on the ballot that seem to keep people away from the polls. So in the first place, there isn`t much to be gained. In the second place, there is much to be lost. Local election officials, Secretaries of State, county officials have come to us and said not only is it an administrative problem, the program is fraught with fraud potential.
LEHRER: What kind of fraud potential, Congressman?
FRENZEL: Fraud potential that a person can vote not in his or her district, or that a person could vote more than once; and that sort of thing makes everybody very nervous.
LEHRER: Does it make you nervous? Is that why you`re opposed to it?
FRENZEL: It makes me very nervous, but my prime opposition to the bill is that the federal government is forcing a system which has some drawbacks on the states and local jurisdictions who do, for whatever purpose, not want this system. And the mandating of this system at the federal level is the thing that I object to mostly. If some states, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, are comfortable with it and it helps them and works well, then that`s a wonderful thing, and they should be allowed to do it. But to force that system on the City of Chicago, which objects to it mightily, the County of L.A., that objects to it, the City of Philadelphia, that doesn`t like it, is more than we should do. I think it`s fine for the federal government to furnish incentives, but to force a doubtful system on the rest of the country is, I think, a bad thing.
LEHRER: Congressman, as you know, the conventional wisdom has always said that Republicans have the most to lose -- your party has the most to lose if there`s a higher turnout. Is that an issue here? Is it Democrat versus Republican?
FRENZEL: Not for me. I can`t analyze the Minnesota figures because Vice President Mondale was on the ticket, but in looking at the only other state that had it, Wisconsin, I think President Ford did better in those precincts where there were a high number of voting-day registrants than President Carter did. So I think it`s too hard to analyze. There are three groups that will be aided: the unions, who do a lot of registration and voting, will only have to do half as much work, one trip; mobile people, who tend to be affluent, will be able to register and vote on Election Day -- they will be aided; and anybody who wants to perpetrate fraud will have a little easier time of it. And I see those as three classes who might be aided, but I don`t see any particular political advantage for either party.
LEHRER: Some of your colleagues do, do they not, sir?
FRENZEL: Oh, I think they talk about it, but they can`t document
LEHRER: Let me ask you both: both of you have had experience with the Minnesota system, and this is what this is patterned after; Wisconsin and a couple of other states also have it, or something similar to it.
Mr. Moe, the Congressman said that this has not increased voter turnout at all in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
MOE: That`s not true. In 1976 in both Minnesota and Wisconsin we had three to four percent higher turnout in both states, and this was at a time when the national turnout, particularly in the states in the non-South, were going down from 1972.So I think we can show from the experience that we have, which is admittedly limited, that there has been an increased turnout. In Minnesota alone we had 450,000 people register at the polls on Election Day. 44,000 of those were in Mr. Frenzel`s district, which I think puts to rest the partisan argument.
LEHRER: Have you got the further breakdown as to how many of them voted for Mr. Frenzel?
MOE: (Laughing.) No, I don`t.
LEHRER: What about the question of fraud? What`s been the experience in Minnesota under this system on fraud, Congressman?
FRENZEL: We have never looked for any, and so we haven`t found any, and I think in our state we don`t really have any -- or at least, any that we`ve been able to determine. Our problem there is administration. The first election that was run under this system in 1973, we had nearly twenty percent of the people registering improperly, some in the wrong precinct, some not completing their registrations properly, and so forth; and we still have that problem. We had legislative districts where hundreds of people voted for the wrong person running for the legislature, who wasn`t even running in that district. We had one local election that had to be set aside and we had to certify a new councilman rather than the apparent winner because...
LEHRER: Because of the registration system?
FRENZEL: Exactly, because people from the wrong district wanted to vote on registration day at the place closest their home, but it didn`t happen to be their precinct.(Laughing.)
LEHRER: Mr. Moe?
MOE: The fact remains that there has not been one case of fraud wherever this system has been used, in Minnesota or Wisconsin.
FRENZEL: Well, the fact also remains that there haven`t been any significant fraud checks, no significant money spent in looking for fraud. I don`t think there is a lot in Minnesota and Wisconsin; we have a good history there. But sooner or later, a little bit about some of the other areas.
MOE: Well, we have a history of strong law enforcement and obeying the law in Minnesota, that`s true. But the fact remains there has not been one case of fraud in 1976 where this system was used, and I believe some one million people voted under some variation of this system last November.
LEHRER: What about the additional point that the Congressman raised, Mr. Moe, that he has no objection if a state wants to use this system on their own, but he objects to the fact of the federal government mandating this and saying, "All right, everybody is going to do this."
MOE: Well, that argument has been raised every time we`ve tried to broaden or extend the franchise in this country, whether it was women`s suffrage, the fifteenth amendment, the Voting Rights Act, extending the vote to. eighteen-year-olds, or whatever. Every time somebody has said this system won`t work, it`s terrible, you can`t impose this on us, it`s fraught with fraud; and every time that`s proved to be not true. Instead, every time our system, I think, has been strengthened by the inclusion of more people in our electoral process; and that`s really the question that`s at issue here: do we really want more people to vote?
FRENZEL:I think we do want more people to vote; we`d like them each to vote once, in the right precinct in which they live. Eighteen year-old voting amendment was the only one in my political lifetime that I was involved with. All the states liked it; they adopted it immediately. Both parties endorsed it; there wasn`t a conflict. Here we`re trying to mandate one federal system to a large, disparate number of separate jurisdictions, many of which don`t want it and feel it will give them a lot of problems. There`s no similarity at all between this and the eighteen-year-old vote amendment.
LEHRER: And other people in the United States are not as honest as Minnesotans, Congressman?
FRENZEL: Some of them believe so. You`ll hear from one later on tonight who will talk about that to a great extent, I think.
LEHRER: In fact, we`re going to hear from him right now, because much of the opposition, as the Congressman said, to this Carter plan, both directly and indirectly, has come from local and state election officials, and fraud is the general issue they cite; and Cook County, Illinois -- Chicago -- is usually the specific example. And with us from Chicago tonight is Thomas Roeser, chairman of an organization called Project LEAP, which stands for Legal Election in All Precincts. The group was founded in 1971 to help clean up the elections in Chicago. Mr. Roeser, could this system work in Chicago?
THOMAS ROESER: Absolutely not. It opens the door to massive, uncontrollable vote fraud. Honest election judges here will be powerless against persons showing up with fraudulent identification who will be allowed to vote. Phony I.D.`s are ridiculously easy to obtain. There is no way -- I think the big problem is, there is no way to actually separate out a vote that is cast illegally under this bill. There`s no way to find a voter who illegally cast his ballot, actually after Election Day, to prosecute in spite of the substantial penalties of up to $10,000 and five years in prison. The worst thing about it is, close elections will be thrown into controversy, and election contests in the courts will be frequent. Officeholders will be really seated under a taint of corrupt election. There will be need in Chicago for at least two extra registrars for each precinct in Illinois, one Republican and one Democrat. In Chicago we can`t now find the 15,425 judges needed for each Election Day. This would require an additional 6,170 persons and would simply not be possible. I feel personally that actually in a sense what should happen is that people should read the Justice Department`s own memo, which was suppressed, on this thing and which finally came to light; because Mr. Carter`s Justice Department itself, inside, said this law would be an open door to vote fraud. This law would really let down the drawbridge and allow people to really corruptly mismanage our system. The Carter administration at that time tried to prevent it, and I suppose thanks to Mr. Mondale we can say after it was called to his attention he allowed this thing to come out. And the Justice Department memo, which really talks about it, I think is the most eloquent and the most actually telling story about the whole bill.
LEHRER: All right, sir. We`ll give Mr. Moe a chance to talk about that memo in just a moment, but is it your position that Chicago`s voting situation is more corrupt than others and it wouldn`t work there but that it might work somewhere else, or are you just saying that based on your knowledge of elections and voting that it shouldn`t go into effect anyplace?
ROESER: I think it shouldn`t go into effect anyplace, but I think especially in areas where you have big patronage set-ups; you have Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, you have New York, Louisiana, Camden, Newark, Texas and many other areas -- you`re going to find the kind of system that has been working here and in fact which Project LEAP has tried to stop and has, in effect, been successful in stopping. That is that the precinct captain, in order to keep his job, has to hustle votes on Election Day. And with this system, I want to tell you, when you can actually go in there and vote and register at the same time there is no defense, there is no way to keep the system from actually being fraudulent as a result. And I sort of feel that in a sense I suppose it`s sort of a partisan game on the part of the Carter administration to really put this one over on the American people, and I certainly hope that they defeat it.
LEHRER: Partisan issue -- based on your reading of Chicago, this sort of system would help the Democrats more than the Republicans in Chicago?
ROESER: It would help the Democrats more than the Republicans, yes, but that isn`t why I`m against. it. I`m against it because it would throw the system into chaos so that actually the thing would be unbearable so far as government is concerned. So I think actually, sure, you`re going to have Democrats win here, but that isn`t any news, gentlemen, in Chicago. What you`re going to have is, I suppose, between 100,000 and 300,000 illegally cast ballots here. And as the New York Times has said -- at least in one column, and certainly the Chicago Daily News has said -- Mr. Carter doesn`t need that kind of onus to get re-elected.
LEHRER: All right. Mr. Roeser, thank you. We`ll be back. A recent survey showed that most election officials are opposed to Election Day registration, but there are exceptions, and one of them is Marie Garber, Elections Administrator for Montgomery Country, Maryland, a mostly urban area here in the Washington suburbs. Ms. Garber, from your perspective, why is this a good idea?
MARIE GARBER: It`s a good idea if you believe in the universal franchise, and if you think the universal franchise is meaningless unless it`s universally exercised. We`re looking for ways, like Dick Moe said, to enlarge participation. I`m concerned that the greatest threat to representative government is the low participation. we have. We`ve been dropping off since 1960; we`re down to barely half the people voting in a Presidential general election, and the last time we had an off-year election only thirty-eight percent of the people voted. That, I think, is the real threat to the system.
LEHRER: And this system, you think, would improve the voter turnout. You agree with Dick Moe.
GARBER: Right. It`s not a be-all and end-all. I`m not nearly as hopeful as I was about a hundred percent participation when I started work in this field ten years ago, but my experience has demonstrated to me that every improvement, every convenience in the registration system has led to some measure of improvement in participation. I`ve come to believe that improvement only comes incrementally, and this can be an important increment. If it`s only one percent of the eligible electorate in the country, that`s one and a half million votes. That`s equal to the margin by which Carter won this time. If it`s two percent, that`s three million votes; that`s worth going for.
LEHRER: All right, but you heard what Congressman Frenzel and Mr. Roeser in Chicago have said about the vote fraud. Does that not concern you?
GARBER: Of course. No one can be involved in elections and not be concerned with accuracy. Perhaps one of the reasons I`m not so frightened by the threats of potential fraud is the experience I`ve had over the past five years in enacting registration-by-mail systems in my own state and in operating that system, and in working for the enactment of such a system -- you call it postcard registration -- on Capitol Hill. These were the same arguments that I heard five years ago in the Maryland general assembly and in the Congress, and three years ago when it came before the Congress again: it will lead to administrative chaos; you will be deluged with duplicate applications; you will receive stacks of applications you will never be able to read; and above all, it opens our whole electoral system to uncontrollable fraud.
Now, we`ve been at it, and Dick Moe`s state -- we were in the vanguard here; we started in 1973, we enacted our laws then -- it has not been administratively chaotic; we`ve planned carefully. There has not been a deluge of duplicates. We have been able to read every application that has come in, and we are not cryptographers. And above all, there`s been no fraud at all. By now forty-seven percent of the electorate is covered by registration-by-mail system, and this enormous fraud that was predicted never materialized. So I`m not as fearful of threats of fraud. I am concerned with this lack of trust of everybody for everybody else.
LEHRER: Why are you in such a minority? Your colleagues who do the same thing you do, in other counties and other states throughout the country, are very much opposed to this system.
GARBER: Election officials, like people in any line of work -like people who are Congressmen -- are not monolithic; they have differing opinions. And I don`t want it to seem that I`m the only one. The Secretary of State of Massachusetts, Colorado, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, the President of the International Association of Clerks and Recorders -- all of these people are with me; they support this legislation. Why do so many, though? I agree that the majority of election officials oppose it. Part of it, I guess, is the natural inclination of any individual to resist change. We all resist change; we become comfortable in the position we`re in. Unfortunately, I think, among many election officials, they perceive their role to be as making judgments as to what kind of people should vote. Conscientious, well informed people should vote. Lazy, preoccupied people should not. But all of that is constitutionally irrelevant. If we`re eighteen years old and we`re citizens, we have the right to vote. I. think most important among election officials -- you know, this is a high- visibility business we`re in, especially when you goof, and elections are becoming more complex all the time. And we`re watched; we work in a fishbowl. And they`re afraid that the new system won`t succeed; they hear Mr. Roeser from Chicago and they hear Congressman Frenzel and many others who are far more vociferous than he, and they are afraid it won`t work...
LEHRER: And they won`t come after Moe, they`ll come after you and the federal election officials, right?
GARBER: Right. And who needs it? It`s tough enough putting on an election now.
LEHRER: All right. Let`s pursue the voter fraud thing for a moment. Mr. Moe, Mr. Roeser cited the Justice Department memo, later repudiated by the Attorney General; but nevertheless the memo did say that this would open up the country to widespread voter fraud.
MOE: It did indeed. And let me just add that that memo was written by a staff attorney who admits he had never read the bill at the time that he wrote the memo. And it certainly doesn`t reflect the views of the Justice Department. It was drawn in broad generalities, it did not specifically refer to provisions in the bill, and it was simply an off-the-cuff reaction. And I think it`s very important when you`re talking about fraud to understand that there are two kinds of election fraud: one we might call voter fraud, where you or I or somebody might go in and try to vote more than once.
LEHRER: Mr. Roeser was talking about voting two or three times.
MOE: That`s right. And then there is official fraud, which involves a corrupt election official who for partisan reasons intends to corrupt the election process for his own ends.
LEHRER: Stuffing the ballot box, that sort of thing.
MOE: That`s right -- voting cemeteries, that kind of thing. Now, there is almost no history in this country of voter fraud. There is, unfortunately, a history of official fraud. But no matter what kind of system you have, if you have corrupt officials bent on corrupting the system, they`re going to be able to get away with it, unfortunately. But what we`ve tried to do in this bill is to build in safeguards as much as we can against both voter fraud and official fraud. You know, the kind of corruption that might exist exists today -- the opportunity for it, at least. You or I could go out into almost any community in this country or series of communities and register and vote ten to twelve times, and the chances are we`d never get caught. You know, the thirty day waiting period between registration and voting is usually not used to verify that the registrant is properly registered. Rather, it`s an administrative convenience for the local election officials to predict the turnout, know how many ballots to order and that kind of thing. And all those opportunities for fraud exist now.
LEHRER: Yes, Mr. Roeser?
ROESER:I really would like to respond to that. I think my friend Mr. Moe doesn`t understand the process so far as it exists here in Cook County or in a lot of other urban areas. We have found fraud here; we have documented that there have been more than 110 convictions here and indictments. And so far as I`m concerned, when I go down the street as the Chairman of Project LEAP, I see every day when we have an election attempts to have people come in to vote fraudulently. Any idea on the part of the Vice President of the United States, who had been a chief law enforcement officer in Minnesota, that this thing won`t actually create chaos is just whistling in the breeze.
LEHRER: Mr. Roeser, let me ask you the question to the point that Mr. Moe raised. Are you talking about individual voter fraud, or are you talking about corrupt officials?
ROESER: I`m talking about corrupt officials who purvey upon and who work upon individual voters to sell their franchise and to vote several times and many times. I`m talking about people who are coerced and who are threatened into voting several times and many times. You see, essentially what this is, there is a liaison there between a corrupt official and a person who has certainly been victimized out there and has to either sell his vote or by threat of being removed from some system or other have to vote. This bill, I`m just going to tell you right now, is going to really invalidate the election process in Cook County; it`s going to create huge systems of vote fraud here; and I just simply think that the Congress ought to be aware, and certainly, once warned, ought to be really aware that this bill is going to be the ruination of our system in Cook County which we`ve tried to rectify now and have succeeded in improving.
LEHRER: Congressman, would you go that far in your...
FRENZEL: No, but I think Tom makes a valid point. Dick said that you don`t use the registration thirty days beforehand to any good purpose, but in Chicago Tom Roeser and his LEAP group have used that to the wonderful purpose of curing the voter list there of the tombstones. They checked those names that are pre-registered to find out if they are really living people and if they`re qualified to vote. And that`s been the reason that elections in Chicago and Cook County are beginning again to have the confidence of the people. And they`re very nervous that they won`t have the confidence of the people under this system. I don`t live in Cook County, so I`m not as fraud-conscious as Tom is, but there`s a problem; you can`t sweep it under the rug.
MOE: Jim, we think that this bill will reduce even the amount of fraud that exists in elections throughout the nation today. We truly regard it as an anti-fraud bill because of the very stiff penalties we`re putting into this bill -- five years, $10,000. By the strict enforcement that the Justice Department has promised, by the safeguards of identification and affidavits which these people must sign at the polling booth, very few people are going to risk incurring those severe penalties --and that goes for election officials, too -- for the purpose of corrupting the electoral process, and therefore we think there`s going to be less fraud.
ROESER: These penalties exist today, of course.
LEHRER: We have about twenty seconds left. Let me ask the two of you -- you`re up on the Hill and working this, so what are the chances of this passing and being enacted into law, Congressman?
FRENZEL: If the White House is interested in a compromise to make the plan optional, I think there`s a great possibility; I think otherwise, it`s not going to make it.
LEHRER: Do you agree, Mr. Moe?
MOE: We still think there`s a good chance to pass it in its present form, but we would like to get some Republican support because we really don`t view this as a partisan measure.
LEHRER: All right. Thank you very much, Ms. Garber. Thank you, Mr. Roeser in Chicago. Robert MacNeil will be back tomorrow night. Breaking news permitting, we`ll be looking at another Carter idea: his message today on the environment. I`m Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Universal Voter Registration,” 1977-05-23, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 16, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_507-cc0tq5s206.
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