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University of Iowa News Release


Jan. 22, 2007

Overton Criticizes U.S. Election System, Praises Iowa In Lecture

A leading voting law expert said at the University of Iowa College of Law on Friday that the United States electoral system is not designed to accurately convey the will of the voting public, but is more frequently established in such a way as to ensure the political status quo.

"Look at last fall's congressional elections," said Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University and author of the book "Stealing Democracy." "Public support for Congress was at about 16 percent, an all-time low. But 90 percent of congressional seats were considered safe. Control of Congress turns on only about 10 percent of the seats."

Overton delivered his lecture, "Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression," based on his book of the same name, at the College of Law Friday to wrap up the university's week-long Human Rights Week events. Overton pointed to many examples of attempts by power brokers to use laws and election structures to maintain their power. For instance, he said that in the 2004 presidential election, voting officials in Columbus, Ohio, knew they were about 2,000 voting machines short but refused to purchase new machines to make up the shortage. They also put more machines in affluent suburban neighborhoods than in inner-city neighborhoods that were populated mostly by poor people and African-Americans, leaving voters in those neighborhoods to wait as long as four hours in line.

He also pointed to Congressman Howard Berman, a Democrat from California, who had his district boundaries re-drawn to reduce the district's Latino population so that Berman would have better chances of winning if he was challenged by a Latino in a primary election. The person in charge of re-drawing the boundary was Berman's brother, Michael.

To take voting out of the hands of the power brokers, Overton called for the creation of a non-partisan and independent election commission that would oversee elections, instead of individual secretaries of state or local officials. He said such a model is used successfully in other countries.

He also said election day voter registration should be required, the federal government should provide money to states to pay for elections, and photo identifications should not be required of voters.

"Voting is about ascertaining the will of all citizens, not just those who do this or that or comply with a procedure," said Overton. "Voter dilution is about politicians wanting to win re-election."

During his lecture, Overton commended Iowa for its honest and open political system, praising especially former Gov. Tom Vilsack's executive order in 2005 that restored voting rights to convicted felons who had served their time and were no longer on probation.

"That allows 100,000 people who had completely paid their debt to society to vote again," said Overton, who said that 2.1 million convicted felons in a similar situation across the country still can't vote because the states where they live continue to prohibit felons from voting.

Overton was also a member of the Democratic National Committee's commission on presidential scheduling and timing that maintained Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus status in 2005. He said that as long as Iowans continue to operate their caucuses in a grassroots, deliberative, open-minded manner, he expects their first-in-the-nation status will continue. However, he said if Iowa caucus-goers start making decisions based on powerful interest group considerations and lose their deliberative, citizen democracy manner, that status might be taken away.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,