Last Updated October 25, 2006

Jimmy Carter’s Town Hall meeting
with the American University Community

4 p.m. , September 19, 2005
Bender Arena
Sponsored by the Center for Democracy & Election Management and Office of the President

Well, as Bob Pastor said, he and I have been together for 30 years and that’s the best introduction he has ever given to me. And I really appreciate it. It must be the magnificent influence of American University on him. He’s mellowed a lot since I first knew him. As a matter of fact, 25 years ago, Bob and I were neighbors of American University until I was involuntarily retired from the White House as a result of the 1980 election. Bob has been very close to me in many ways. He was my national security advisor in the White House when America adopted as a basic foundation for our foreign policy the protection of human rights around the world. And later, when he worked with me and the Carter Center, Bob was the originator of the Carter Center’s commitment to establish democracy and freedom in many other countries, beginning in Latin America.

As Bob said, I just returned Saturday afternoon from Mali, Nigeria and Ethiopia. The Ethiopian election held on May the 15th and just now coming to a close was the sixty-first election that the Carter Center and I have monitored. Next month, we’ll be going for the 62nd election in Liberia. This commitment to freedom, democracy openness, fairness has been a great deal inherited by me from the advice from Bob Pastor.

This last few months, we have addressed one of the most difficult and sometimes embarrassing aspects of the United States of America. As we have observed other elections around the world, we have seen standards established and improved that now make us in some ways ashamed of our own system or at least apologetic for the system. Other countries have electronic voting; they also have a paper proof of the way you voted. Invariably, other countries have a central election commission that guarantees uniformity of the voting ballot and the procedure of voting in every place in the whole country.

We have about 4400 different voter centers in almost every county in this country. Other nations provide that all the candidates who qualify have equal access to television and radio to present their views to the people of their country. In our country you can’t do that unless you’re rich. So, Dr. Pastor and I recognized a long time ago that we had some problems in the American system, but I don’t think the American people ever became aware of them until after the year 2000 when -- for weeks after weeks -- we didn’t know who won the election in Florida and therefore who was to be elected president of the United States.

As a result of that difficulty, former President Gerald Ford, a Republican friend of mine, and I headed up an election study commission. And we had a wide range of dedicated people who worked with us and we made recommendations to the President and to the Congress, and the Help of America Vote Act H-A-V-A or HAVA was passed. This is really the first time that the Congress has ever taken such a major step into trying to provide uniformity in our country about electoral procedures because under our system of federalism, historically this has been a preserve, politically speaking, of the states’ individualism but we wanted to make them more uniform.

So HAVA was passed and it took a great step forward. However, this new law was not adequate. And in 2004 we still had some problems and we’ve tried to address those in this recent effort by a bipartisan commission headed by me and former Secretary of State James Baker, an ardent Republican, and we had 19 other members. American University staff, under Dr. Pastor’s direction, did the hard work and provided the leadership. And today the report is finally complete and this morning we met with the President. Karl Rove was there to demonstrate the interest of the White House in politics, if you doubted that at all. Then, we went from the White House over to the Capitol where we were able to present this to some key members of Congress and also to the staffs of the major committees that will decide what new legislation will be forthcoming.

I won’t go into detail about what we did. I’ll just give you a few things. We would like to see that every state official who is in charge of the election in that particular state is nonpartisan at least as far as the national election is concerned. As you may remember in Florida, in 2000, the chairman of the Republican election campaign for president was also the Secretary of State – ostensibly, a balanced administrator of the election process. And the same thing happened last election in Ohio. So that’s one of our recommendations, that there be a nonpartisan and obviously unbiased person in charge of electoral process in each state. Another recommendation we made 4 years ago was that the states have uniform voter registration and then also a uniform system of voting, and many states have moved toward electronic voting. But there’s not much confidence in the secrecy within a computer system that the software is fair and unbalanced and not corrupt, and also people will know that when I punch this screen and I get ready to walk out of the voting place, how have I voted? So we have advocated for there to be a paper trail to show a voter after we vote, look at the paper record and say, “Yes that is the way I voted.” And if there is a close election, then you can compare the paper ballots with the electronic tabulation to make sure that they were accurate. And also in advance we want every election official to know that there’s going to be an audit of every election. We’ve never had that before. But in the future that will be an audit. [Applause]

So that – say for instance - one percent of all the voting places in the state, chosen at random and not anticipated in advance, will be double-checked to see if the paper ballots and the electronic ballots are exactly the same. We want to make sure that there is not discrimination against people and that as many folks as possible are registered to vote and that those who come forward to vote are the people who are on the voters list.

Well, I come from Georgia and I’ve been embarrassed that my own state passed a law this year that in effect takes away the basic right of people to register and vote, particularly if they are poor or African American or aged. I hate to admit this, but the legislature -- I don’t think you need to guess which party it is; I won’t say that in order to be nonpartisan; it was not my party; I won’t say which one it was. Best of all, you won’t believe this, that every person in the future has to have an official photo identification card issued by the state. We have 159 counties. These will be issued only in 56 places around Georgia. None of the places where you can go and get a photo ID card are in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta votes heavily for my party, I won’t say which one it is. Also, and this is almost unbelievable, you have to pay for the photo ID card. $20 for a 5-year voting right. $35 if you want to have the right to vote for 10 years. As you know we have a Voting Rights Act in our country and this was appealed to the Justice Department and they approved this process. I won’t remind you which party is in charge of the Justice department. But now there’s a lawsuit that might set this aside.

These are the kinds of problems that we are trying to resolve in this commission. You can see that they’re very serious problems. And they have convinced more than one third of the total people in this great democracy under public opinion polls that “I’m not confident that my vote will be accurately tabulated.” That’s what we’re trying to resolve and I want to express my public gratitude to Dr. Pastor, to all of his staff here at American University to taking leadership on it because it’s Bob’s initiative that actually resulted in the establishment of this commission and they have provided the assistance for us. So if our country in the future has a good, decent, honest, respectable, dependable and fair election process American University, I would say, could take most of the credit. Thank you for that.


Q: Peter Brusoe, president of the AU Graduate Leadership Council: In your extensive report, you propose changing the American primary system from being state bids to being four regional primaries to void the front-loading of this typified primary contest. How do you propose to convince political parties which nongovernmental agencies are very interested in regulating to begin with, to change their primary schedule willingly?

A : OK, this was a problem that America has faced for a long time and assessed the fact that in the primary seasons in previous elections when the Democratic and Republican nominees have been selected to represent our parties for president, at the end of that process, only 8% of the American voters have been able to cast their ballots to participate. And by that time the other 92% have to face the fact that the decision’s already been made. So the secretaries of state, of all the 50 states have long recommended that we leave, I would say Iowa and New Hampshire alone, let them go first and then after that you’d have regional voting with the east coast, Midwest, west and then the west coast, and that’s what we are recommending and the first presidential election the east coast might vote first, might be chosen by ballot, but after that there would be a rotating system so different ones would go first each four years. Well, we’re going to present this to the major political parties, Democrat, Republican parties, also to the state governments, the governors’ conference and others and also to the Congress. As a matter of fact, the Congress itself, under the U.S. Constitution has the authority to prescribe this system and we don’t have any assurance that it will be done. We believe that our recommendation will be considered by the American people… they’ll say we really need this change and induce the Congress members to make the change or either the political parties themselves.

Q : Adam Cohen, president of AU Washington College of Law’s Student Bar Association: Under HAVA, there are a number of provisions and mandates that have not been fully funded to date. A number of states have not completed their application requirements… The voter ID provision will be mandatory but if Congress fails to fund this implementation of the ID provision… how do we ensure that this doesn’t become a de-facto poll tax in the end…?

A : Good. I have to say really with the photo ID requirement that this was a difficult thing for me at the beginning of this process. If you would have asked me 5 months ago I would have said, “No.” But when I saw what Georgia had done and when I realized that 24 states have now required voter identification before voting and 12 other states are considering this change, first of all, I felt that a uniform system would be better than having each state go individually with bias or discrimination being a real prospect. Secondly, we put in some very careful safeguards to make sure that this Georgia debacle is not repeated. For instance, we require that every photo ID card be free of charge. Third, that there be an aggressive voter registration process in every state to go out and reach people who have never been registered before as they acquire a photo ID card. You might remember the so-called Motor Voter Act, which was passed a number of years ago and this May 2005 the Congress passed a law called Real ID. In the future, anyone who gets on an airplane, anyone who gets a driver’s license, anyone who cashes a check, anyone who goes in many federal buildings will have to have one of these Real ID cards. So that’s going to be an awful basic requirement anyhow. So we thought if we tagged on to that process, which is already passed into law, that it would be a good way to do it. We know it’s going to take a little time to implement this, so until the year 2010, under our recommendation, if you go to the polls and you don’t have a photo ID card, you can cast a provisional ballot and that will count just as well. And after 2010, let’s say you don’t have a photo ID card or you’ve lost it, you’ll be granted 48 hours to get your credentials and come back and prove that you meet your requirements. So we’ve built in all kind of safeguards to make sure that it’s uniformity, that it’s free of charge, it’s not discriminatory and, in fact, we believe it will greatly increase the number of people, particularly the poor and the African American and old people that are not registered now. One of our key people who came and gave testimony at a commission meeting in Atlanta last August was Andrew Young. Andrew Young believes that this is one of the greatest moves to be made to encourage increased participation by those who, at this moment, are excluded.

Q : Grade the last 2 elections that brought the administrations to power. And grade FEMA.

A : Well, I would say that in the year 2000 the country failed abysmally in the presidential election process. There’s no doubt in my mind that Al Gore was elected president. He received the most votes nationwide and in my opinion he also received the most votes in Florida. And the decision was made, as you know, by a 5-4 vote on a highly partisan basis by the US Supreme Court. I would say in 2000 there was a failure. The year 2004 is hard to grade. I don’t have any detailed information about what actually went on in Ohio. If Ohio had gone one way or the other it would have changed the outcome of the election. And the only thing that I know about Ohio was that there’s general consensus, that the secretary of state of Ohio, who was responsible for the administration of elections was highly partisan in his public approach and perhaps even in his private administration but I don’t know about that.

As far as FEMA’s concerned, I founded FEMA in 1979 as a direct response from a petition given to me by the national governors’ conference. Because at that time there were 16 different federal agencies that dealt with disasters like Katrina and we put it together with 3 specific commitments that I hoped at that time were permanent. One was that it would be headed by highly qualified professionals in dealing with disaster. Secondly, that they would be completely independent and not under another agency that would submerge it, secondarily. And third that it would be adequately funded. Well, I thought that that’d be a permanent commitment. But, as you know, all three of those provisions have been violated in recent years and obviously there were deep problems at the local and the state level and at the federal level so I think now is the best time not to look at blaming about Katrina, but to try to correct the defects that have evolved in recent years and make sure it’s not repeated.

Before I take another question I would like to make a comment. I’ve been in politics since 1962. I ran for the state senate in Georgia, and I served there. And I have observed a lot of people and politicians. One of the greatest men I know and one of my heroes in the realm of human rights and equity is Julian Bond. I would like to recognize this person. By the way, in 1974 when I announced for president there was a Gallop poll run and among American Democrats, who do you think ought to be the next president? There were 36 people on the list. I was not on the list. Julian Bond was on the list above me. Julian it’s good to see you again. Good luck to you. [Bond stands to applause, nods]

Q : Advice to make it as easy as possible to get our peers to vote.

A : Well, first of all I think that in this past election there was an increase in the number of student participations and that’s a good omen hopefully for the future. The point is that it’s a personal commitment to make. And the inspiration of young people as well as old people to vote has to come from within. Is it worth my trouble to make sure I’m registered to vote? Do I believe that my vote will make a difference? Do I believe that my vote will be counted accurately? Do I believe that I will have an influence on my candidate if my choice is successful? Do I have confidence in the basic integrity of my own country? Do I believe that I can shape our nation in the future to commit to the principles that I personally believe: peace, equity, human rights, freedom, democracy, protection of the environment, the alleviation of suffering? Do I believe I can make a difference? And so all of those questions have to be assessed by an individual person to decide, “Am I going to go through the trouble of registering to vote and vote?” And I think that student organizations within a campus can set a goal for yourself of 95% of all the students registered to vote and keep up the campaign for registration the entire year. It doesn’t take but a couple people like you to keep this on the forefront. You can put up placards and use the student newspaper but it has to be driven. And I think that somebody like you can drive it. This is not an easy thing to do. When I was governor I was faced with the prospect that not many of our young people voted so I got the legislature to pass a law, Julian Bond will report, that authorized every high school principal to be a voter registrar. So every May, May the 15th, I would set aside one day that week for voter registration and the high school principal would be the one in charge of registering all the students that had gotten to be 18 years old that year, and they had to report to me what that percentage of registration was. So I just think that if you keep this up, if American University does it, suppose you get 95% of all the American University students registered to vote, man, that would make a wave of impact on campuses not nearly so advanced as yours, like Harvard and Yale and Berkeley.

Q : Zoe Toby: While full of reasonable reform proposals, your report doesn’t seem as ambitious as the times warrant. How can we ensure basic principles of one person one vote, majority rule and full representation? What were the Commission’s conversations, and where do you and Dr. Pastor personally stand on the following 3 reforms: direct election of the president, instant runoff voting, and election of the House through multi-member districts and proportional voting to ensure representation for all instead of winner-take-all?

A : Well, those are all theoretically advisable. If I was writing the American constitution 220 years ago, it may have been better to have direct election of the president, but the constitution prescribes that we have the electoral college and my guess, and my assurance is that this will never happen during your lifetime or mine because we couldn’t get ¾ of the states and 2/3 of the House and Senate members to vote for a constitutional amendment to change it. However, there is an escape valve here with which I’m sure you are familiar. And that is that each state can decide to allot its presidential electoral votes on the same percentage as the popular vote was cast. A couple of states do this already. Any state could do it if it wanted to and that’s something that your organization could pursue. Because most people don’t know that. As far as the other provisions and recommendations that you recommended, well we had an evenly divided group of members, half Republican and half Democrat, very deeply partisan in nature, so we had to reach the highest possible common denominator that we could reach and I have to tell you that I’m just proud that we didn’t reach the lowest common denominator. And one of the saving, there were two saving things about it. One was the superb work that the staff did in putting it together, the other one was the somewhat rare, personal compatibility between me and former Secretary of State James Baker. You know, we didn’t argue with each other, we honestly tried to find the best proposals that we felt we could get a majority opinion to support. So some of the ideas that may have been theoretically advisable, I wouldn’t question them, but we had to be more practical and you have the personal right to be somewhat disappointed that we did have to cut corners on the case in order to reach a consensus. I’m not apologizing, just explaining.

[insert Dr. Pastor’s comments here]

Q : Jean-Claude, School of Public Affairs: How can presidents use their unique powers to restore confidence in our democracy?

A : One of the ways that any president can improve confidence in the democracy is to be courageous and frank in acknowledging the defects in our system. It is very hard for an American citizen or certainly a public official to say we have problems in this greatest democracy on earth. And to say we do have defects and as a result would be a major step forward so I would say that the incumbent president, President George W. Bush, I would hope that he might endorse the recommendations that we have made, and that Congress would act accordingly and that the Democratic and Republican members would do so. But I think there has to be a realization that the number one voice that can influence the American people in controversial issues certainly in one’s own party is the President of the United States. And we don’t yet know what position President Bush will take on this proposal. We presented it to him this morning as I mentioned earlier. I would hope that he would endorse it and say that this is a good report, there are a few things about it with which I don’t agree, but we hope that Congress will favorably consider it and also all the states will do so. So for a president to be, to repeat myself, to acknowledge our own faults, make sure that the American people know that these are the changes that need to be made, if so we’ll have full confidence in the integrity of our election. Those are the things that the president can do.

Q : Unofficial invitation to submit resume to be President of AU (applause)

A : (Dr. Pastor: “I second the nomination.”)

Carter: I have two responses. One is my wife would not permit me to leave Plains and her for the rest of our lives. We’ve been together 59 years. And secondly, every Sunday, I teach classes in my Bible school at Mary Mother Baptist Church and I couldn’t do both at the same time. So those are the two main reasons I don’t accept your invitation, but thank you very much for the compliment.

Q : Pia Jordan, former student in the masters program in the School of Communication: First of all I did vote for you when you were running for President and I just want to give you my testimony. I am here, I am from Baltimore and I admire you and I have admired you for years as a man of principle, as a man of faith; and I have two questions for you.

Based on what we are seeing dealing with terrorism now would you have done anything differently during your administration dealing with Afghanistan?

And my second question is, do you think the Iran hostage situation may have been manipulated so that the hostages were brought home after the election that you lost?

A: Well, do we have time for discussion? First of all, Afghanistan was a nation that was invaded by the Soviet Union when I was there. So, secretly I tried to ensure that the Soviet Union would not be successful in completely occupying for the-- permanently the nation of Afghanistan. We gave all the help we could secretly for the freedom fighters who were against Soviet occupation. I made a public announcement that if the Soviet Union moved out of Afghanistan, with success, which I didn’t realize, and down through Iran, and down through the other countries, through the Indian Ocean, that we would consider this a direct threat to our own country and I would respond accordingly. And it was partially because of that, that the Soviets were not successful in taking over and occupying Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew, I had left the office of president by then., Afghanistan cried out for substantial assistance in establishing a democratic form of government and correcting the damage that had been done to that country by Soviet occupying troops. That assistance was not forthcoming and it was because of that, partially, there were other factors, the Taliban established ultimately their regime and that Osama Bin Ladin and others came in and orchestrated the terrorist attacks that have now permeated the world as a threat. So that is what happened on Afghanistan.

As far as the hostages were concerned this was the biggest problem that I faced when I was president. The hostages were taken in Iran. As you know, they were completely innocent diplomats. 52 of them were kept for almost 14 months. I was faced with a difficult question. Most of my advisors said we need to take military action against Iran. I decided instead to issue a warning to Ayatollah Khomeini, who was a brilliant religious and political leader. I told him that if a hostage was injured that we would stop all trade between Iran and the outside world. If a hostage was killed, then we would launch a military attack against Iran. I could have destroyed Iran with our massive military capability. Fortunately, the Ayatollah listened to my warning and never was a hostage injured or killed. I had two goals in mind. One was to protect the integrity of my country and the other was to bring every hostage home safe and free. And I thank God that both those prayers were answered.

As far as influence not to release the hostages until I was out of office, the hostages were in an airplane on the end of the runway on inauguration morning at 9:30, ready to take off and they did not take off until 12:05 after I was no longer president. I’m sure that was a decision made just by the Ayatollah. I’ll let you think what you want.

Q: Brendan Steidel, student in the School of Communication: Earlier today you talked about increasing voter participation in our democracy. This summer I worked for the Department of Elections in Volusia county Florida. I was thinking about increasing participation because there is such low voter turn out and registration in our country. I came up with the idea of maybe introducing a tax across the board for all Americans, maybe an income tax, very small and put that money in a pot so that each time someone walks into vote they get $5 or $10 so that maybe they can go out to dinner afterwards. I know that this would increase voting among people in poverty but also even if you make $200,000 a year you go to vote you’re going to want your $5 or $10 dollars back. So I want to see what you think about that idea.

A: I think it is very interesting. Thank you very much for your innovative thought.

Q: Andrew Armistan, freshman in the School of International Service: Has the Carter Baker Commission been involved in Iraq at all and will it in the future?

A: No, the Carter Baker Commission confined its responsibilities just to the future election process in the United States. The Carter Center, though, as I mentioned earlier, we have helped to monitor 61 different nations. One of the things that we don’t do in the Carter Center is to duplicate what others are doing. So, if the United States, is orchestrating an election through our government or if the United Nations is in charge of an election like in Iraq, we don’t participate. We just go to countries that are in need and when the ruling party and the government ask us to come in and the major opposition parties, and we see that the election is not going to be successful if we don’t go, then we consider going in to the country. The Carter Center is a small organization and we can only do about 5 elections each year. We will continue to do that, but we didn’t take on Iraq.

The largest election that we’ve ever done was in Indonesia, now 7 years ago. Indonesia had never seen a democratic election, but the Carter Center went in and worked with the Indonesian people and orchestrated a very successful democratic election and now Indonesia, the 4 th largest nation in the world, and the largest Islamic nation on earth, has very honest and fair democratic elections. So, it is interesting I believe to make one other comment. The three largest democracies on earth that have major election successes are the United States, and India, and Indonesia. The United States, majority Christian; India, Hindu; Indonesia, Muslim. So it is not a religious thing that leads to a democracy. It transcends religious faith and it is a common desire and dream of every American to be free and to choose one’s own leader. That is why we worked on this commission.

Q: Amisa Perlman, Vassar College student: In 2004, British Columbia appointed a 160-member citizens assembly, the same way we assign people to jury duty, to study and make recommendations for electoral reforms. Through democratic deliberations and expert testimony they decided to recommend length voting with multi-member districts. Now given how the public tends to be less partisan than our politicians, would a commission of the people make sense to you?

A: Yes, well, Bob points out that they made a recommendation for partial representation and it was voted down. Well, I think some states as you know, are heavily dependent on proposals that are presented directly to its people through petitions. California is a state of this kind, so in that state and in some others as well, groups of citizens can prepare a petition and then let it be submitted as a referendum and it transcends the decision that a legislature and a governor can make. So that is always an escape valve. But I would certainly have no objection to a citizens oriented election commission that would parallel the work that we’ve just done. The problem you face there is how do you put it together so that it is not all designed to ferment and to implement one particular point of view. How do you make it somewhat balanced? How do you make it parallel to some degree what is ultimately going to be faced in the state legislature or the Congress? So that is one advantage of this. But I think citizens originating ideas is a very good proposition.

Q: Jason Oliver, freshman in the School of Public Affairs: I have a question about the Iran hostage crisis. Was it not an American embarrassment to your administration in front of the world and for America that you allowed, passively allowed, American citizens to be held hostage and maybe have effects that we are now feeling today with the upstart of possible fundamental and radical groups?

A: Well, it was certainly an embarrassment to me and a disappointment that the American hostages were held during that time. I believe it’s accurate to say there was unanimous condemnation from all of the nations on earth that the American hostages were held during that time. And I don’t believe at all that the hostage crisis contributed to the increase of terrorism that we’ve experienced now 25 years later. But I would have done anything within reason in my own life. [Applause] I would have done anything in my life that I could have then, to bring the hostages back safe and free earlier, but as I said earlier I am grateful that they finally all did come back safe and free.

Well, let me-- time has run out I have to catch a plane. I don’t have Air Force One anymore, I have to depend on Delta, and Delta has just gone into bankruptcy, so I’m going to try to get to the airport. Let me say, let me say this, as we discussed this afternoon, as you know in this brief period of time, some very important issues, that relate to our nation, its integrity, its reputation, its relationship with countries around the world. Some of the issues I’m sure that were important to all the questioners and maybe to you.

The bright spot about the future is not with me or Jim Baker or the commission members that have served, nor even people like Bob Pastor. The bright spot in this country is you, the young people who can look at your life with an increasing degree of understanding and comprehension now that Google has come along, and you can instantaneously know what’s being done here and what is being done around the world. You are in a very unique period in your life, you are in an environment that encourages exchange of contradicting ideas and you can assess those ideas and select the ones that you want and you can promulgate them without fear of punishment or intimidation. And this is a transient time in your existence. Four or five years from now all of you are going to have heavy obligations if you are a teacher, or in business world, or financial world, or a lawyer, in pleasing the people around you. You are obviously going to have more of you married and have a financial responsibility to your family. And the freedom you now have is going to be subsumed by the obligation to earn a regular paycheck to meet the obligations of the people you love.

Now is the time to have a burning desire to see your own life and the life of this nation enhanced. We live in the greatest most powerful country on earth. America’s military budget is equal to the combined budgets of all the nations in the world; I don’t think that’s the measure of greatness. So a reasonable question of you is what is the definition of greatness? I think you can look at one person and see what is greatness. I think there is a direct parallel between the greatness of a person and the greatness of our nation. I would like to see the United Sates of America be looked upon throughout the world as a preeminent nation that espouses peace, not preemptive war. [Applause]

I would like for our country to be looked upon as a symbol for democracy and freedom so that the electoral system in America, the example of democracy, is without blemish. And that’s what we’ve been working on recently. I would like to see America be looked upon as the nation on earth that holds highest the banner of basic human rights and those rights apply to American citizens and to others. And I would like to see our country be looked upon as the most generous nation on earth, and the most responsive to needs of other people. We have a long way to go in that last respect.

If you take the income of America, the national income, in our total foreign aid package, we only give 16 cents per hundred dollars. It’s the lowest contribution on earth toward the alleviation of suffering among poor people. That needs to be increased. So those are the kind of standards for you to set for yourselves and for you to ensure that we set collectively for what I believe ought to be the greatest nation on Earth. Thank you very much. [Applause]