Most of us think election days roll around too soon, if we remember them at all. For Alexander, every day is election day -- a red-letter day for the president of the California Voter Foundation. It's a nonprofit, nonpartisan outfit dedicated to fixing the election process. Where to start? Hanging chads, crummy turnout, clunky voter databases that any smartphone can leave in the dust, a mishmash of regulations and ravaged budgets. We pay lip service to elections as jewels of democracy, but that's about all we pay for them. Undeterred, Alexander always casts her vote for voting itself.
I love elections; I grew up with elections. My dad ran for Culver City City Council when I was 7. Election night, we had a big party and my dad was the underdog and someone was on the phone getting the numbers and I [wrote] the numbers on the chalkboard. To me, politics has been about community service.
You also learned about the political version of trick or treat.
Someone showed up at the door with a $500 [campaign contribution] check. For a Culver City election, that was a lot of money. My dad sent him away. He said: "I don't know that man, I don't want to know him and I don't want him to think I owe him anything." My first lesson in how money in politics works!
We have former Secretary of State March Fong Eu to thank for banning pay toilets -- and for the California Voter Foundation?
[It was] an offshoot of the secretary of state's office, to raise charitable funds for extra voter outreach. By 1993, it was [defunct], out of compliance with various tax filings. In college I'd worked for Gary K. Hart when he ran for Congress. It was grueling: high stakes, consultants, opposition research -- that stuff is really unpleasant. I wanted to be for all the voters, not just some of the voters. So this opportunity to restart the California Voter Foundation fell into my lap.
Even voter registration has become politicized. Someone on a right-wing website wrote that it is "profoundly un-American'' to register welfare recipients to vote.
It's unfortunate. In a lot of the world you're automatically [registered] when you become 18 and you're a citizen. Here we have this extra hurdle.
Across the country, voting rights are not shared among all Americans. In California there's a variety of practices between the counties, an unevenness. That's a big problem.
You almost weren't allowed to vote in 2008.
They told me my polling place had moved. I got my sample ballot and went back and said, "This is my polling place." They were turning other people away.
Elections are run as if they're one-day sales. We run polling places for 12, 14 hours, staffed by people with very little training working very long hours on a job they only do once or twice a year. We should have people vote over several days in an environment staffed by well-trained people. I think about elections year-round; most people only think about them for maybe two months. It's hard to sustain the momentum to implement election reform.
What kinds of problems have you encountered at other polling places?
In 2006, when the electronic voting battle was raging, I went in with a crew from [the PBS] "Newshour" to a polling place in Stockton, with cameras. It was complete chaos. [A poll worker] hadn't shown up; they literally had pulled someone in off the street to help. All these security seals on the electronic voting machines, poll workers just tore [them] off, because they didn't know what they were doing.
I went to another polling place in the same county that afternoon without the cameras. I gave them my card and they thought I was some government official. The poll worker opened the machine up at to show me the paper trail spool exactly the opposite of what they were supposed to do.
The biggest fiasco I witnessed was paperless electronic voting in March 2004. We found out that San Diego County bought its equipment from Diebold before it was even certified by the state or the federal government. The second largest county in the state. They deployed thousands of voting machines and more than half [in] their polling places were not operating at some point during [election] day. People were literally told to go home and come back later when maybe the machines would be working.
Voting is a constitutional right, but some states demand that voters show official IDs, to stop fraud. Critics say that's about suppressing the vote.