Matt Kohn Goes After the
Electoral College and America's Failed Electoral System
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
People want to get involved with fixing the election system on
every level in a very non-partisan way. I have been using the word ‘anti-partisan’
- because we don't want our elections run by people who have a direct
interest in the outcome. We want our elections run by people who have
an interest in the correct outcome. -- Matt Kohn, Director, “Some
Call it Democracy”
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There’s only one way to get rid of corrupt politicians
like Tom DeLay – it’s voting them out of office. The problem is that America’s
voting and electoral system is plagued with problems. There is a crisis
looming whether our future elections will have any legitimacy with the
growth of computer – and paperless – voting machines. Before we can vote
the crooks out and have a true democracy in our country, we have to fix
our voting system first.
That’s the thrust of a new documentary, “Some Call It Democracy,” by director
Matt Kohn, a balanced and resourceful film that peers into America’s voting
system and finds there are more problems than meet the eye. Kohn analyzes
the overarching and systemic problems with how we vote – mainly pinpointing
that the people who run our electoral system are partisan for one political
party or another. Kohn not only retraces all the many subplots in the
theft of the 2000 presidential election, but he also probes much deeper
and asks how the Electoral College, by its very existence, suppresses
voter turnout in non-battleground states. Lastly he delves into the myriad
of problems and potential corruption with computer voting.
Kohn’s documentary is supported with thoughtful interviews with such speakers
as Representative Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (D-IL), Representative John Conyers,
Jr. (D-MI), investigative reporter Greg Palast, John Nichols from The
Nation, and Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), the sponsor of legislation
to mandate a paper trail for computer voting machines. Kohn also interviewed
Professor Alan Dershowitz and Vincent Bugliosi and a host of other constitutional
law professors about the Supreme Court’s ruling that handed the presidency
to George W. Bush.
“Some Call it Democracy” is playing on May 17th and May 21st at the San
Francisco Documentary Film Festival. Or you can check out http://www.callitdemocracy.com
for more information.
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BuzzFlash: In my view, we have a voting
and an electoral system that discourages people from participating in
our democracy instead of encouraging it. Would you agree with that?
Matt Kohn: Not completely, I wouldn’t say that the system
discourages people. I think that people understand the system and know
of their ability to change it. Whether that happens or not is something
BuzzFlash: Why did you decide to do a documentary about
the problems with the American voting and electoral process?
Matt Kohn: I was angry about what happened in the 2000
presidential election. But I was also curious to know what other people
felt about voting in America.
I remember when I was in fourth grade, and the Electoral College was explained
to us. And I think I was probably the kid in the class who asked, “What
if there’s a tie?” And the teacher said, “There can’t be a tie.” What
I was fascinated more and more with was, well, we just had a tie. And
the more you look under the rug of electoral systems, the more you realize
there’s lots of little ties happening all over the country, not just because
of the two-party system, but because the machines don’t work. You mix
that up with the small percentage of Americans who actually participate,
and you get a recipe for the system breaking down to the extent that people
BuzzFlash: What are the most important things that people
need to know about our voting system and what’s wrong with it?
Matt Kohn: People need to know that there are two forces
which are diametrically opposed to each other creating the system we have.
One is that barely 50% of Americans participate in the Presidential election
process every four years. What they don’t realize, and what the election
in 2000 brought out, is that not all election systems are the same. That’s
what people don’t understand.
There’s also a political difference between the two parties about how
to solve the problems of how to count the votes and also how to stop people
who shouldn’t be voting from voting. The Republicans generally believe
that states should have absolute control over the process. Now more people
are beginning to believe that there should be a national standard, which
is generally supported by Democrats.
If you ask people, “Should there be a direct popular vote for President?”
72% say there should be a direct election for the President of the United
States. To me, that means the biggest problem with the electoral system
we have now is in its initial conception of an Electoral College. That
gets in the way of votes actually being counted for the candidate of their
choice in the state in which they reside.
BuzzFlash: The 2000 Presidential election, with all of
the irregularities and voter disenfranchisement that occurred in Florida,
demonstrated just how broken the American electoral system really is.
And in your film, several poll workers, voting analysts, journalists and
various heads of elections, stated that what happened in Florida was and
is not uncommon. There are very significant and systemic problems in our
Matt Kohn: Georgia had a higher rate of thrown-out votes
than Florida did in 2000. And there are a few other states that also had
worse problems than Florida. And the reason why no one knew about those
oddities until way after the elections was generally because the elections
weren’t that close.
What a close election reveals is the margin of error –
how many votes get thrown out. And some states don’t even keep records
of this. Before 2000, there were very few people – maybe a handful of
scholars, academics, and activists – that were concerned with this issue.
And for the most part, election officials always knew about it and they
just didn’t really feel like it was necessary for them to take any action.
Even now, they’re divided on it.
BuzzFlash: One of the truly appalling aspects of the
Supreme Court’s decision of the 2000 election awarding the Presidency
to George W. Bush was that the Court stated that Florida had no uniform
standards in their voting process to ensure a fair recount. They went
on to say that their decision wouldn’t apply to any other decision or
court challenge, because – as the conservatives on the Supreme Court know
– only in a few states in America are there uniform standards for voting.
Standards vary from state to state. Americans vote on different types
of equipment and technology with varying degrees of accuracy and spoilage
rates. The average time to wait in line to vote and the number of poll
workers vary wildly.
Matt Kohn: My film is making an effort to encourage the
viewer to be concerned about this. But before 2000, no one was concerned.
This was not considered a civil rights issue and it certainly wasn’t an
issue that the vendors or the election administrators were even concerned
about. Election administrators were actually using spoilage rates of votes
as a reason to buy one type of product or voting machine over another.
Nobody was using the spoilage rates as a wake-up call to fix the system.
It wasn’t that it was a hidden thing. It’s just that so many bad things
happened all at once in Florida during the 2000 election that it brought
voting problems to the forefront.
BuzzFlash: In Florida, in the 2000 election, Katherine
Harris, Secretary of State, was also the chair of George W. Bush’s campaign
in Florida. And yet in her role as Secretary of State, she’s the state
officer to certify elections. When you look at this just from a common-sense
perspective, you have to ask yourself: how can this be allowed?
Matt Kohn: I believe that election administrators have
to be anti-partisan and that we have to work to develop laws which prohibit
any kind of political activity. There are some that believe that the way
to provide honest elections is to make sure that there are at least two
sides that are opposing each other equally. But most people believe that
the Democrats and the Republicans no longer oppose each other equally.
And I think it’s fair to say that if you talked to a Republican thirty
years ago or forty years ago about the way elections were run, they might
feel a lot of the same feelings that Democrats feel now. So that’s why
we need to have administrators who aren’t really part of either party.
BuzzFlash: How do you respond to critics and the right
wing who say that progressives and Democrats need to get over it and accept
the fact that George W. Bush is the President.
Matt Kohn: I think that George Bush didn’t win in 2000.
I think we present that information in a clear way in my film. But I also
think that George Bush won the election in 2004. And if people are concerned
about what happened in Ohio, they also need to be concerned about what
happens in every state in every election. What we have to think about
is why does the system allow egregious errors and potentially even worse
things to happen? And what do we need to change in the system overall?
And that’s not a Democrat thing or a Republican thing.
The more politically conscious you are, whether you’re on the right or
the left, the more you understand the need to have the best election system
possible, especially when you realize how close the numbers are consistently
going to be in the next fifteen or twenty years. Unless there’s a youth
paradigm shift that no one predicts, there’s going to be close elections
Here’s a really good example. I was hanging out in Congress waiting for
a hearing on electronic voting machines. And the hearing got cancelled
and I was talking to an assistant to a Republican representative in Congress
who I did not know particularly well, but we’d enjoyed a few pleasant
conversations. Anyway, I was talking to her and this guy comes up who
I later found out was an advisor to several Republicans. And he was adamant
that the Republicans get on top of the paper trail bandwagon because if
Bush won the election by a small margin, the Democrats would be able to
say he stole the election because there were no paper trails. And I know
that this person has consistently worked hard with some of the more outspoken
advocates demanding paper trials for computer voting machines. And of
course he didn’t know I wasn’t a Republican. And that was very interesting.
And I think that gave me a great deal of hope.
BuzzFlash: There is a push to increase the use of computer
voting machines beyond those used in 2004 and in 2002, and again these
machines and programs are privately held by companies and corporations.
Would you agree that we’re essentially selling and privatizing our election
Matt Kohn: That’s already been done. I think that we
have to realize that elections have been commercialized for a hundred
years. If you go back, lever voting machines have no paper trail – there
have been ways to use the machines to manipulate elections. Some voting
machines were run by gears and you could always shave off a gear or two
and lose votes if you didn’t want a certain person or party to win.
The high-tech version which people are more aware of now
is computer voting machines. And this is increasingly frightening because
you can’t expect average or even highly-trained election workers really
to provide tech support to computer voting machines. And in fact the need
for tech support for a voting machine is a problem. The real concern is
that computer programming, whether it’s an open-source code or not needs
a paper trail for every kind of machine whether it’s a commercially based
machine or not.
BuzzFlash: Our country is still so bitterly divided,
and it seems possible if not probable that in future presidential elections
the candidate who wins the popular vote will not necessarily win the election
due to the Electoral College. Your documentary focused on former Indiana
Senator Birch Bayh who led the charge in the seventies and the eighties
to repeal the Electoral College. Since nothing happened after the 2000
election, I myself am quite pessimistic that we will ever get rid of the
Matt Kohn: My film is pretty clear that the reason I
think we should get rid of the Electoral College is I’m sure that we’re
going to have more Presidents elected who did not win the popular vote.
The reason I believe we should lose the Electoral College is that the
Electoral College, in and of itself, suppresses voter turnout in Presidential
elections in states that aren’t battleground states. That’s the number-one
In Colorado, where we filmed in 2004 elections, there was an amazing voter
turnout. And that happened because Coloradans believed that their vote
counted. And they were right. It wasn’t as close as anyone thought, but
people turned out to vote. In states like New York and California and
Texas, states which had presumed outcomes in the Presidential election,
the voter turnout was exactly the same as it was in 2000. And that’s not
saying much in favor of why we should keep an Electoral College when we
want to have every American participating equally in the vote for President.
BuzzFlash: Most Americans believe that we have the best
or the most advanced democracy in the world. Yet we have perhaps by some
standards one of the most pathetic electoral systems for a nation of our
wealth and strength and power. I remember reading a whole list of categories
which U.N. election observers use to rate the legitimacy of an election.
And there were certain categories that the United States ranked behind
several developing countries. It seems easy for Americans to judge other
countries and elections as corrupt or illegitimate but not our own.
Matt Kohn: First of all, I disagree with that. I think
Americans only judge other countries out of ignorance. They don’t know
whether those countries are running their elections fairly. There can
be a general assumption that if there’s a dictatorship that’s been in
power for twenty years that’s running the elections that there is a problem.
You know, FDR was elected four times and no one was brave enough to call
him a fascist.
BuzzFlash: What would you say Americans can or should
do about our voting and electoral system? It’s the hardest question to
answer, but people who watch documentaries like yours want to know where
Matt Kohn: I think the first step is to abolish the Electoral
College and have a guaranteed right to vote, whether there’s an Electoral
College or not. There is no right to vote for President. It’s the states
that have that right. When I interviewed Jesse Jackson, Jr. at the steps
of the Lincoln Memorial, he makes that point eloquently, and it’s the
most important point.
I also think Americans need to educate themselves, see films like mine
about voting problems, and then move forward from that to educate themselves
about their state election laws and voting rights and see where their
I think there should be a citizens’ movement, one that’s not just a movement
of the two political parties, focused on voting rights. After the 2000
elections and the litigation that people saw, there’s a number of new
lawyers and litigation that’s both for and against voting rights. Most
Americans are unaware of it, but they haven’t even felt the beginning
of the repercussions on future elections. Obviously some of this litigation
is necessary and positive, considering there are efforts to ensure that
people who were disenfranchised in 2000 stay disenfranchised. The worse
thing to do would be for us to do nothing.
BuzzFlash: Matt, thanks for speaking with us.
Matt Kohn: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Call It Democracy website
Matt Kohn’s blog
The San Francisco Documentary Film Festival