The Half-Baked Baker Carter Commission


Jimmy Carter and James Baker are sitting at a table and Carter starts
talking about the disastrous election of 2000 in Florida—it
sounds like the start of a joke, doesn’t it? It was actually
the start of the first meeting of the Baker-Carter Commission on
Federal Election Reform in Washington, DC, on April 18. Baker didn’t
do much bragging about his role in Florida. In fact, there was more
than one occasion during the meeting on which Baker notably kept

primary question in the minds of many people I spoke to in the meeting
and outside was: “What the heck is James Baker doing on a commission
to reform elections?” Former President Carter said more than
once that Baker had been his first choice to co-chair the commission
and was his second favorite Republican (second to Gerald Ford).
Carter and Baker once worked together on monitoring elections in
Nicaragua. Baker said he was encouraged to participate by President
Bush and Republican party leaders. 

background on the creation of this odd-couple commission can be
found on Brad Blog, which reports that a group called the American
Center for Voting Rights appeared out of nowhere on March 17, was
the only voting rights organization to testify at a U.S. House committee
hearing on the 2004 election on March 21, and praised the Baker-Carter
Commission on March 24 just minutes after its creation was announced
to the surprise of real voting rights groups. ACVR, as Brad Blog
reports, was created by Jim Dyke, the communications director for
the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Mark F. Hearne, the
lead National Counsel for Bush/Cheney ‘04 Inc. The group’s
tax status is 501c3, which requires that its activities be non-partisan,
and its representative never mentioned in congressional testimony
its relationship with the RNC and Bush/Cheney. 

involved in voting rights issues are aware that, unlike Republican-chaired
hearings in Washington, hearings held in Ohio in the months following
last year’s election included many points of view and resulted
in a 102-page report on election fraud in that state. The driving
force behind those hearings and the subsequent January challenge
to the Ohio results in Congress was ranking Democratic member of
the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers. 

the second question in many people’s minds on Monday: “Why
the heck wasn’t Congressperson Conyers testifying at this meeting?”
The short answer is that the Commission would not allow him to do
so. A letter that Conyers sent to Carter on April 11 should shed
some light on why. In this letter, Conyers does two things that
were not done by any speakers on Monday. He questions the inclusion
of Baker on the commission and he questions the validity of the
official results in the Bush-Kerry election. 

right. An election reform commission has been created in the wake
of public outrage over an election, following the historic challenge
in Congress of the Ohio results, and not a single speaker at Monday’s
meeting raised the question of whether the election system functioned
adequately to conclude that Bush won the 2004 election. 

meeting was not referred to as a public hearing and the public was
not invited. The 21 commission members heard presentations from
12 speakers on 3 panels, then met in private for an hour, posed
for a photo, and held a press conference at which Carter and Baker
took four questions from the press. At the press conference Carter
predicted what the Commission might do in its report, planned for
September, following a June 30 meeting at the Baker Institute at
Rice University. The most definite prediction, as well as the most
encouraging, was one Carter made a number of times. “We might
very well,” he said, “recommend electronic voting systems
with a paper trail.” More than once, Carter described what
he has in mind for a paper trail. In various countries where the
Carter Center has monitored elections, he said, people vote on an
electronic machine, which prints out a paper ballot, which the voter
can check and then place in a ballot box. Random checks can then
verify an accurate electronic count by comparing it to the paper
count. “I have no disagreement,” Baker said of this proposal.

ballots have been a top demand of numerous organizations seeking
to reform U.S. elections. At Monday’s meeting this demand was
voiced by David Dill, professor of Computer Science at Stanford
University and founder of The secretary of state
of Kansas, Ron Thornburgh, argued against paper ballots, not because
he claimed electronic machines could provide reliability on their
own—no one claimed that—but because some new, as yet unimagined,
technology might someday be able to do it and because the disabled
prefer electronic machines. 

pointed out that the law could always be changed if technology changed
and that audio could be added to the machines to help the disabled.
In fact, it seems entirely possible to make machines and polling
places far more friendly to the disabled while producing a useful
paper trail. Changes, like adding wheelchair accessibility, parking,
trained staff, and updating voter databases with data from Medicaid
offices, don’t conflict with requiring a paper trail. 

early April, Progressive Democrats of America and a coalition of
other organizations submitted a list of recommendations for the
Commission to propose: 

  • Constitutional
    right to vote for all citizens, without exception 

  • Paper ballots
    as the official record of all votes cast 

  • Open source
    code for all machines used to count and/or tabulate the votes

  • Independent
    analysis of all voting machine software and hardware before and
    after elections 

  • Unified national
    standards for national elections 

  • No vote machine
    company executive or employee involvement in campaign work for
    any candidate 

  • Random audit
    of 10 percent of elections 

  • 10-day period
    for voting 

  • Election day

  • Voter identification
    by any official form of identification 

  • Independent
    non-partisan administration and multi-partisan observation of

  • Voting rights
    restoration to convicted felons 

  • No computer
    networking of vote machines 

  • Publicly financed
    elections for federal offices and free access to public airwaves
    to all candidates 

  • Fair ballot
    access laws and access to debates for all candidates and parties

  • Federal holiday
    for national elections 

  • Instant Run-off
    Voting and Proportional Representation 

  • Equal protection
    for voting rights nationwide 

  • Augmentation
    and reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act 

first of these has been addressed by a proposal from Congressperson
Jesse Jackson Jr. for a Constitutional amendment, but it was not
even mentioned at the Baker-Carter meeting. Also not discussed at
all was voting machine company executives’ or employees’
involvement in campaign work. Several other items were mentioned
only in passing or not at all. Among those not mentioned at all
were public financing of elections, access to airwaves, ballot access,
debate access for candidates, instant run-off voting, and proportional
representation. More than one speaker raised the question of why
over 40 percent of Americans routinely do not vote. Each raised
it as a mystery and presented no hypotheses to explain it. 

reporter from Scripps Howard at the end of the press conference
raised a couple of the questions that had been ignored. He asked
whether the Commission might look into the possibility of limiting
campaign advertizing in the days before an election and into providing
free air time. Carter replied that the United States fails the standards
that the Carter Center requires of other countries, not just because
the United States lacks national election standards, but also because
this country does not provide candidates with free access to the
news media. But, said Carter, the questions raised refer to matters
over which the states, not the federal government, have control—a
claim for which Carter offered no evidence. 

first panel Monday morning was called “Elections and HAVA:
Current Status.” HAVA is the acronym for the Help America Vote
Act, the law that came out of some, but not all, of the Carter-Ford
recommendations following the 2000 election, and which has not been
fully funded by Congress. The first panel included Gracia Hillman,
chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which was established
to oversee the implementation of HAVA, and Kay Maxwell, President
of the League of Women Voters. Maxwell recommended not requiring
a paper trail, but “performance standards,” requiring
secure ballots, rather than “design standards,” telling
people how to make them. Maxwell thought it would be harmful to
change HAVA while it was still being implemented, a comment that
Commission member Tom Daschle said he supported. Hillman seemed
to believe that everything was fine.

two people on the first panel whose proposals spoke most directly
to the concerns of citizens were Chellie Pingree and Henry Brady.
Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, described problems encountered
in 2004, including people waiting in line for hours, malfunctioning
machines, arbitrary demands for identification, deletion of people
from rolls, and unfulfilled requests for absentee ballots. “These
are as serious as hanging chads,” she said and asked that the
2004 election not be judged just by its having been resolved out
of court. Pingree recommended: 

  • easing barriers
    to voting 

  • requiring all
    machines to produce a voter-verifiable paper ballot 

  • providing better
    training to poll workers 

  • making permanent
    federal and state commitments, not federalizing elections  

  • listening to
    the many concerned voters around the country 

Brady, professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University
of California, Berkeley, supported a recommendation from the Carter-Ford
Commission that has not been acted on, namely creating a national
holiday for election day. He also suggested that the HAVA requirement
of statewide voter registration systems in each state by January
2006 appeared unlikely to be met by a number of states. If it was
met, he said, it was not clear they would allow communication between
counties and was clear that they would not allow that between states.
Brady proposed that the databases of registered voters in all states
be accessible in real time at the precinct level, which would mean
eliminating provisional ballots and allowing election-day registration.
“We can check data in banking transactions,” he said.
“There’s no reason we can’t do it with voting.” 

second panel dealt with “Access and Integrity.” The first
speaker was Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’
Committee for Civil Rights. She worked with the Election Protection
coalition which, she said, received 110,000 calls to its hotline
on election day alone and had written up 43,000 incident reports.
These, she said, told a very different story from that told in the
media. Arnwine described cases of polls that did not open or opened
late or closed early, discriminatory challenges, untrained poll
officials, too few voting machines, and failure to provide assistance
to the disabled or those needing linguistic assistance. She recommended
exploring the ideas of election-day registration and early voting. 

an effort to head off the arguments that she knew were coming, which
would shift the focus to alleged fraud by individuals improperly
voting, Arnwine said that incidents of ineligible voter participation
were far less than one-tenth as widespread as the sorts of problems
she had described.  

second speaker was John Fund, a member of the

Wall Street Journal

editorial board. Fund immediately focused on the question of ineligible
voters, although he did not present any evidence or even claim that
the problem was widespread. He proposed requiring photo IDs and
requiring that states provide them free of charge through divisions
of motor vehicles. He also recommended allowing provisional ballots
only in a voter’s precinct because local officials would, among
other things, best be able to tell whether someone “looks as
if they belong in the neighborhood.” 

McAndrews, a lawyer from Santa Monica who served as treasurer of
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign for governor of California,
generally agreed with Fund. “There’s paranoia in the country….
I share John’s view that it’s not fraud but incompetence.”
McAndrews recommended a new voter ID system. But she did not explain
how that would address people’s concerns, most of which have
been over issues like those Arnwine described. McAndrews did express
support for three proposals not yet implemented from Carter-Ford:
full funding of HAVA, a national holiday for elections, and uniform
poll closings in order to avoid the calling of elections, which
suppresses voting in the West. 

fourth speaker was Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National
Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. He supported
full funding of HAVA, electronic voting with a recountable paper
trail, better training of poll workers, and reauthorization in 2007
of those parts of the Voting Rights Act that will then expire. Vargas
argued that requiring IDs suppresses voting by qualified voters.
He offered as an example cases in which a change of address is made
on voting rolls, but not yet made on a driver’s license. Arnwine
added that requiring people to take time off work and travel, sometimes
long distances, to a DMV to obtain an ID will result in their not

about voting by ex-felons, Fund claimed that only states can address
that issue, while Arnwine recommended that for federal elections
states could be required to allow those who have served out punishment
to have access to vote. 

third and final panel, dealing with “Voting Technology and
Election Administration,” is the one on which Dill and Thornburgh
spoke. Also speaking were Jim Dickson, vice president for Governmental
Affairs, American Association of People with Disabilities, and Richard
Hasen, a professor of law at Loyola Law School. 

presented statistics to show how little trust U.S. citizens have
in our election system, but then proposed a federal voter registration
and ID, including fingerprints, in order to boost voter confidence.
But, again, no evidence was produced to suggest that any significant
sliver of the distrust has anything to do with fraud by individuals. 

Conyers released a statement following the Commission meeting that
pulled no punches: “The first meeting of the Baker-Carter election
commission was disappointing and, at times, outrageous and tainted
with racially-charged innuendo. Let me make absolutely clear that
I greatly admire former President Jimmy Carter and believe he was
insightful and on-target throughout the hearing. However, given
the incredible lack of balance and profound lack of good faith demonstrated
by some of Carter’s fellow commissioners and many of the witnesses
at this hearing, at times he seemed to be a very lonely voice of

remarks of Mr. James Baker, III, which were echoed by a number of
right-wing political operatives called as witnesses, seemed to have
a singular purpose of spreading hoaxes and conspiracy theories about
ineligible Democratic voters being allowed to cast votes. The remedy
was cleverly repeated, ‘photo ID, photo ID, photo ID.’
Right-wing pundit John Fund was called as an ‘expert’
witness and offered racially charged proposals with racially charged

can be said of a commission that holds such a hearing? What hope
is there for the recommendations of such a Commission? I am scheduled
to meet with Commission officials this week and I am trying very
hard to have an open mind. But, frankly, at this point—seeing
this first hearing—I think we should all be very wary of this
Commission’s objectives.” 

the press conference at the end of the day, Baker announced that
the Commission had decided not to take on “really volatile
issues,” including the electoral college, redistricting, or
voting rights in the District of Columbia. 

Plotkin of WTOP News Radio in Washington, DC asked why DC voting
rights were off the table. Carter replied that he and Baker both
supported DC voting rights, but could not deal with that issue on
this Commission. Plotkin expressed surprise that Baker would support
DC voting rights and asked the former Secretary of State to confirm
that claim. After all, Baker had called the issue “really volatile.”
Baker stood and silently smirked. When pressed to speak, he said
that the Commission would not make any recommendations requiring
constitutional amendments.

David Swanson
is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America.