BuzzFlash Interview, Congressman John Conyers, Jr.
August 27, 2001
WHY AREN'T THE REPUBLICANS ENSURING ONE PERSON-ONE VOTE?
A BUZZFLASH CONVERSATION WITH CONGRESSMAN JOHN CONYERS JR.
"In a new report, House Democrats argue that the federal government should require states to meet minimum national voting rights standards and should pay for the costs," the New York Times reported on August 19. "The report, prepared by the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, found widespread disparities in how the states carried out elections. It said the rules in 38 states on how to conduct a recount would be found unconstitutional if judged according to the United States Supreme Court's decision last year in the election dispute between George W. Bush and Al Gore."
To learn more about what steps are needed to ensure the American right of one person-one vote, BuzzFlash interviewed Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan (14th Congressional District), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, who oversaw the compiling of the report and the development of its recommendations. The report Click Here (more than 100 pages and requires Adobe) was prepared by the Democratic investigative staff of the Committee.
Representative Conyers, who represents a Detroit area district, is a long-time advocate for equality in treatment for all Americans, including the right of every American to vote and have his or her vote counted. He is one of BuzzFlash's personal heroes.
BuzzFlash: Your election report, released last week, is titled “How to Make Over One Million Votes Disappear.” Why didn't the Republicans participate in creating this report?
Congressman Conyers: The Republicans chose not to go in on it. It is a Democratic report, but it is not partisan. Election reform after the closest and lousiest election in memory should not be a partisan matter. The fact is that the voter irregularities worked in favor of the Republicans. And it’s just so coincidental that the state of Florida that determined the outcome of the presidential election, that the governor of Florida was also the brother of the winner. It is very circumstantial.
And it just so happens that one of the people who is dragging their feet on election reform happens to be the president of the United States and the beneficiary of some of the worst practices that have ever been uncovered in an American presidential election. And let’s also not forget that the five most conservative justices on the Supreme Court, who for the first time “discovered” that the equal protection provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment now apply to elections. And so based on this absolutely remarkable theory, they determined that we shouldn’t have the votes recounted in Florida, that we should stop while Mr. Bush was ahead and declare him the winner.
BuzzFlash: What would you say are the top 3 recommendations of your report?
Congressman Conyers: Well the first thing is to get machinery that reduces the percentage of error. Let’s talk about the continued existence of segregation in the electoral process. This explains why all the worst machinery was almost always found in African-American, Hispanic, or minority communities. That has got to be changed.
Second, we have to have equipment that can double check a citizen’s voting activity and if there is something wrong with it, it can be determined before they walk out of the voting booth, and avoid having their ballot disqualified.
Number three, we have to provide uniform standards for people with language problems, disability barriers etc. And by the way, these recommendations are consistent with the Constitution, which gives the responsibility for setting the standards for elections to the federal government. It gives the responsibility of conducting the elections to the states and local governments. So we’re working together. One of the arguments that this is a mandate, and that these changes should be discretionary almost meets the laugh test. This is our work, enforcing the Constitution and setting the standards is what we do.
BuzzFlash: Well, let me ask you, since I am a lay person in terms of the law. I’m a little confused with the Supreme Court’s decision. They took what was considered by Republicans, at least espoused by them to be, a states' rights issue -- that is monitoring and overseeing voting -- and the Supreme Court in Bush. vs. Gore said “No we’re in charge.” They decided that the State Supreme Court of Florida does not have the right to make that decision and unilaterally asserted federal authority over a state’s power.
Congressman Conyers: It had never been done before.
BuzzFlash: And now your report is calling for some reasonable and modest standards to prevent the voting irregularities that occurred. Yet the Republicans are opposing your recommendations as a federal imposition on state power. I guess as a lay person, I see that as hypocrisy.
Congressman Conyers: Sir, you should be on the United States Supreme Court.
BuzzFlash: Why is that?
Congressman Conyers: Because that decision halting the recounting of ballots in Florida never would have occurred. And the result in Florida may have been different.
BuzzFlash: Well we know that Vice President Gore received approximately 540,000 more votes than the Governor of Texas, but he is not sitting in the White House. Let me ask you, what does the title of your report mean, “How to Make Over One Million Votes Disappear.”
Congressman Conyers: We found, along with the Civil Rights Commission, the NAACP, and television reports, that 25 states illegally purged people from the election rolls or didn’t add them in time so they could vote. That in 18 states disabled voters had inaccessible voting stations, that many states had confusing ballots. There was widespread intimidation by police and other law enforcement officials on election day in 17 states or more. There was inadequate assistance from poll workers who weren’t sufficiently trained in over a dozen states. The list goes on and on. It wasn’t just Florida, although the state was under the microscope. But then we started looking around and going state by state, and found that every state in the union had insufficient voting standards. And it makes the claim that we’re a democratic system a farce.
BuzzFlash: Why given all this, and the president’s pledge that he would support election reform shortly after he was “appointed”, and given the promise of Florida officials to support election reform, the Republican House leadership seems to be giving only lip service to true election reform. They’re obviously not willing to back it with any political measure of support.
Congressman Conyers: Well I would be happy to analyze psychologically and politically the Republican posture.
They are putting themselves in a totally untenable position with the American people. Because most people, even Republicans and independents, felt that there ought to be fair election procedures everywhere. That has been made quite clear to me. And what is about to be determined is whether the president’s words mean anything. Secondly, whether he understands that you can’t have a democracy where the elections are so unfair in states across the nation, we can’t claim to be a democratic form of government, much less lecture to other nations about their electoral process and standards. We are going to find out where he stands on that. We’re having the wrong person benefit from the political system that produced voting irregularities, illegal activities, and then not wanting to do anything about them.
BuzzFlash: During the recount period, before Supreme Court Justice Scalia said that he was stopping the recount "in order to prevent potentially harming the reputation of the winner George W. Bush," there was an under current of patronizing and undemocratic PR messages by the Republicans. Some Republicans essentially said, “Some people are too stupid to vote,” and if they can’t figure out how to vote right, maybe their votes shouldn’t be counted anyway. Some Republicans have even stated that voting should be for the few rather than the many, rather than expanding voting opportunities. The BuzzFlash view is that there is an inherent Jim Crow attitude here: an attempt to disenfranchise the poor, elderly, disabled, and uneducated.
Congressman Conyers: Remember the "fantastic woman" on the Supreme Court, [Sandra Day O’Connor] who said, you mean people who can’t fill out a simple ballot are now complaining it is too complicated. So not only do we have a system in which race plays a factor in that most of the defective machines are in minority voting areas, now we have a class factor that you should have “enough” education to be able to vote. No matter how screwed up the ballot might be. Even if the ballot is misprinted, well apparently, according to the Republicans, that responsibility falls on you.
This elitist attitude totally ignores our stated commitment to make voting accessible to those who have language barriers or don’t understand the ballot. If you can’t read for example, it doesn’t mean you lose your citizenship or right to vote. It means you need assistance from poll workers, who in too many cases were untrained and unable to help anybody. If you have a different language or a disability, or a reading skill problem, you should be helped. There is nothing wrong with that. So for Republicans to throw these recommendations out is very telling.
That’s why I like Paul Weyrich so much because he says let’s have voting belong to a certain class of society. If you can’t figure out your ballot, don’t come crying to us. I like Paul Weyrich, he’s right out there. He's honest about his prejudices. Just like Mitch McConnell, my favorite Senator from Kentucky, who says that on campaign finance reform we need more money in elections, not less. I like those kind of guys, there is no room to figure something out or determine if they’re trying to slip and slide. They just lay it right out. You know where they stand, even if it's on the opposite side.
BuzzFlash: It comes down to whether this is a nation of one person/one vote or not.
Congressman Conyers: And these are very modest standards too. There is nothing dramatic about making sure the ballot is printed right. Or a machine that allows a voter to correct any errors before they leave the booth. That you have a record for when a person’s ballot is contested, their vote should be held until it is determined, or a record kept. There should be language and disability assistance. These are the most modest standards we can come forward with. If we can’t move on this issue, with a million people’s votes discarded in the last election, it's telling you what certain people, mostly conservatives, think about the election process.
BuzzFlash: Isn’t it a form of voter discrimination when you have voting machines that do not break down as easily in wealthier districts and therefore count more of the votes cast, and have older machines in poorer communities that by being defective count fewer of the overall votes cast?
Congressman Conyers: I think that is an inescapable conclusion. Unless you believe in total coincidence, we found that many of the defective machines themselves had as high as a 10% error rate and they were virtually all found in the minority community. Is that an accident? I don’t know anybody that could think that.
BuzzFlash: Where do we go from here?
Congressman Conyers: This is where the legislative process kicks in. Are President Bush and his Republican cronies going to help us improve the system, or are they going to try to stall this away and make sure that these corrections are not instituted at the federal level. Are they going to help finance them or not? And this is where the rubber hits the road, and I think that this is really going to open the eyes of many voters who gave Bush the benefit of the doubt. If he blocks common sense election reform, then I think people will be able to see through that.
BuzzFlash: How do you motivate or educate the American public that a great injustice has been done and is continuing to happen. What is the way to get that message out?
Congressman Conyers: If I knew that I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now. I would be out doing it.
In a way though, you’re helping us do it at BuzzFlash. People have to know about this. And believe me there is a level of anger about this election that is underreported.
We have to make people realize that unless drastic corrections are made in terms of passing the legislation that myself and Senator Dodd (CT) are proposing, our democratic processes will continue to be threatened. And by the way, we have a majority of the Senate and about half the Congress already supporting it. So Hastert and Delay and Armey have to get off their rear ends and move this thing down the road. Or I think people will come to their own conclusions about who wants to continue these unacceptable problems and who wants to correct them. This may be the issue that determines how the off-year elections go in the year 2002.
BuzzFlash: Do you think the Democrats will be able to shape it into a decisive issue? The media hasn’t reported much on election reform. I mean the Bush campaign was running a war room out of Kathleen Harris’ office, after all. There hardly seems to be any indignation about that nationally. She’s even running around fundraising for the Republican party. And the media, with a few exceptions, is basically silent on the matter.
Congressman Conyers: She might even run for Congress if I read correctly.
BuzzFlash: Now there you go. She might be your future colleague.
Congressman Conyers: The woman who took instructions from the President’s brother Jeb, and maybe even the President himself, delivered the state of Florida that determined the 43rd president of the United States. At least they don’t have the audacity to make her an ambassador, which is what she really wanted. First of all I don’t wish her much luck in winning down there, but if she did happen to come to the Congress, boy now this is a piece of work I would like to get to know better.
BuzzFlash: (Laughs). Maybe she provides some fundraising power for the Democrats just by having her as a lightning rod in D.C.
Shifting topics a little, are you familiar with Vincent Bugliosi’s book “The Betrayal of America”?
Congressman Conyers: I am.
BuzzFlash: Do you agree that there should be an inquiry into the impeachment of the “Rehnquist Five”?
Congressman Conyers: Well I think there should be an inquiry, absolutely.
BuzzFlash: Is that possible in the Republican controlled House?
Congressman Conyers: Anything is possible in a House where the parties are divided by exactly 7 seats.
BuzzFlash: Do you see any movement to begin an inquiry with regard to impeachment proceedings?
Congressman Conyers: No. We’ve been in recess so nothing of that nature has come to my attention.
BuzzFlash: Congressmen thank you. You are a hero of BuzzFlash.com's.
Congressman Conyers: And thank you Buzz. You’re doing fine work.
can find Congressman Conyers' Website at: http://www.house.gov/conyers/
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