Counting The Vote

<B>Scott Pelley</B> Reports On Election Reforms

The good news is the election is over. The bad news is it was just another close call at the polls.

If the election had been just several thousand votes tighter in one of several states, we'd be in the same fix we were in the last presidential election, Correspondent Scott Pelley reports.

After the 2000 stalemate, Congress passed a law called the Help America Vote Act. Trouble is, Congress reneged on its promise to pay for some of the election reforms. And on top of that, many states ignored improvements the law required.

Voters were in distress yesterday, calling on 100 phone lines in the Washington D.C. war room of Election Protection.

The president's margin of victory was so wide that voter problems didn't affect the outcome, but still tens of thousands of voters reported problems.

Election Protection bills itself as a non-partisan lawyers group dedicated to answering voter questions. It had thousands of people at polling places across the nation promoting their hotline number.

"We've had 100,000 calls already - 25,000 just this morning," says Barbara Arnwine, the executive director of the Lawyers'Committee For Civil Rights.

The calls ranged from complaints of fraud to confusion to dirty tricks, including fliers that some voters faxed to Arnwine for review.

"These are dirty tricks. Voters have been calling the hotline complaining of what they see are flyers that are trying to misinform the people," says Arnwine, who showed Pelley some of the fliers.

"The Milwaukee flier, which is allegedly from the Milwaukee Black Voters League - it's a fictitious organization."

Another flier says, "If anybody in your family has ever been found guilty of anything, you can't vote in the presidential election."

Arnwine says the flier, allegedly from a township in Allegainee County, Pa., is very deceptive. "This says, 'Voters will be able to vote on both Nov. 2nd and Nov. 3rd.'"

Where does this stuff come from?

"It comes from people who like to perpetuate dirty tricks, and who will do anything to prevent voters from voting on Election Day," says Arnwine.

The biggest problems were the long lines in much of the country. In Columbus, Ohio, people were in line that stretched for hours. But many told Pelley that they wanted to get their votes in.

"I really want to vote," says Jeffrey Parker, who said he voted in this precinct all his life. But yesterday, he wasn't on the voter registration roll. A Democratic poll witness helped him call the county, but he got a recording.

There weren't supposed to be so many problems this time, because after the presidential election debacle of 2000, Congress created the Federal Election Assistance Commission. However, the first thing Congress did was effectively renege on its initial funding -- handing out only 10 percent of what it had authorized. And the offices didn't open until just a few months before the election.

There's only so much you can do.

"The movement from which I emerge is the civil rights movement. It wasn't funded. We had no offices. Would I prefer that our commission a larger budget? Certainly. So has it been frustrating? Sure it has," says DeForest Soaries, the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission.

"There have been days when I've wondered if I've lost my mind. There have been weeks when I've wondered if we could get something done. Do I want America to see me as someone who's leading a commission that lacks capacity? Or do I want America to see me as a person leading a commission that has made an impact in spite of obstacles? I choose the latter."

One of those obstacles is that states were required by law to have computerized voter registration by now -- but many don't.

"Forty four states have used their legal option to request and receive a waiver," says Soaries. "And so 44 states have said, 'We can't get to that right now.'"

The fact is state and county officials are the real power behind elections. And thousands of counties across the nation set their own standards.

"We have a system that is so decentralized that it's dysfunctional," says Robert Pastor, a professor at American University, and an expert on elections. "Each county and municipality designs its own ballot. Each county has a different voting machine. Each county trains its poll workers differently. Each county has a different registration system. That's why it's so dysfunctional."

Pastor helps third world countries set up their elections, and he says most of them do it better than we do. "With regard to the administration of elections, the U.S. election system is one of the worst of 118 democracies in the world," says Pastor.

The problems, however, weren't enough to affect the outcome of the election -- perhaps only because of the sheer perseverance of average voters.

When one voter, Tina, waited in an Ohio line for hours, she spotted Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and told him off. "I mean, it's months I've been hearing about this, be ready to vote, and I don't get to because of that," says Tina.

Coleman called Tina's boss so she could stay in line another hour and a half: "This is Mayor Mike Coleman. How are you? Say, I'm at a polling location. Tina has been trying to vote and the lines are just extraordinarily long because everybody's voting."

The boss gave in and Tina was able to stay in line.

The United States Election Assistance Commission tells 60 Minutes Wednesday that over the next four years, it hopes to catch up with the problems of this election -- including setting standards for new electronic voting machines and helping the states build the computerized voter registration rolls that they were supposed to have this year.