Election Day

PBS Premiere: July 1, 2008Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What inspired you to make Election Day?

Katy Chevigny: In the aftermath of the 2000 election, I was interested in seeing how the citizens of the United States might be approaching the next presidential election. One of the things that happened in 2000 was a wakeup call to mainstream America that perhaps our votes aren't being counted in the way that we had thought; there were some problems in the system.

I wanted to explore how the anxiety around vote counting was going to affect American voters across the country. I knew that 2004 was going to be a historic election, with a very high voter turnout, so I thought Election Day could be a document of what happens on that particular day and a snapshot of America in 2004.

POV: What did you discover about the American election system during the making of this film?

Chevigny: One of the striking things we saw in the footage from Election Day is the huge disparity in experiences for people going to the polls, depending on where they live in the country. There's also a lot of luck involved with people's experiences at the voting booth; a lot of it depends on whether or not the poll worker you're talking to understands the process or not. I knew there was variation in terms of poll experiences around the country, but I didn't know the variation was so great until we made the film.

All over the country, there were people who were dedicated to the act of voting, who believed in it, and who were proud and motivated to have their votes count. At the same time, there were also a lot of people who were thwarted in their effort to vote — because of long lines, confusion at the polls or being told different things by different people. So there are two stories there: one of frustration, missed opportunity, and a promise unfulfilled; and another of people who care about the process, who try to make it better and who try to make a difference.

I think those two stories say a lot about where we are as a country today. Both stories are continuing, and I think we still have far to go as a country and as a democracy before we have full enfranchisement of the electorate. That's something that we're still falling short of.

POV: How many people voted in 2004, and what kind of systems did they vote on?

Chevigny: In 2004, more than 122 million people went to the polls to vote, most of them on that day. That's an enormous enterprise for any country to take on. There are more than 4,600 different systems of voting around the country. Some of them work better than others. Part of what we show in the film is that depending on where you are and what kind of voting system you have in your locality, you either have a very simple and clear system, or an extremely cumbersome and difficult system.

POV: Why are there so many different systems of voting? And how well does each system work? And does it vary depending on whether they're in a poor neighborhood or a rich neighborhood?

Chevigny: A lot of people wonder why we don't just have a single, consistent and good system throughout the whole country, and there are a bunch of reasons for that. One reason is that a lot of local governments like to have control over their own voting process. Another reason is that there isn't an equitable distribution of resources for running polling places around the country.

The international observer we followed in the film reported that in the lower-income areas of St. Louis, there were fewer resources devoted to poll workers and to actual voting machines than there were in some of the richer neighborhoods in St. Louis. Although she reported on the specific instance of St. Louis, the same story — one of uneven distribution of resources — played out in many localities across the country.

POV: What do you want viewers to learn about the American election system through watching the film?

Chevigny: What I'm hoping people will take away from seeing the film is that there are a lot of different things going on in our electoral process. People care about voting, and there are thousands of volunteer poll workers working long hours during every election because they believe in our country, and they believe in democracy. But our election system isn't as good as it could be.

I hope that after watching Election Day, viewers understand that we could have a better system. But improving our election system is not going to happen on its own; people would need to get involved to reform the system so that everyone gets an opportunity for their vote to be counted.

POV: What can people do to change the system? How can the average viewer of Election Day get involved?

Chevigny: This is the United States of America, and if we wanted to have a voting system that's easy and efficient, we have the capacity to make it happen. So the fact that it hasn't happened means that nobody in power cares enough to make it happen. What I'd like to see is some momentum around the country of people focusing on the mechanics of the voting process and trying to figure out how we can make it fair, how we can make it better. We should devote some real brainpower and resources to make it better.

We pay a lot of attention to the political campaigns themselves, and that's very important to democracy. But I want to draw attention to the disparity of attention paid to the campaign versus the attention paid to the process. We need to devote resources and attention to the process too.

I would love to see more Americans interested in trying to improve the electoral system. If we were to pressure our political leaders to pay some real attention to this, we could see some changes.

POV: The 2008 presidential campaigns seem to have created even more enthusiasm than the campaigns in 2004. More people are getting involved in the process. What do you think will happen at the polls in November 2008?

Chevigny: I'm glad Election Day is being broadcast in 2008. We're right in the middle of an incredibly dramatic presidential campaign, and again, we're looking at what are likely to be close races in both the Democratic primary and the general election. As a result, there are high numbers of citizens registering to vote, and there have been high voter turnouts. But again, we're not seeing any significant media attention on the problem of the voting process.

Although there have been some improvements in the system since the 2004 election, a lot of the problems that you see in Election Day still exist in 2008, and a lot of these excited voters who are really jazzed by this year's presidential campaigns are going to find themselves facing real problems when they go to the polls, if they haven't already. So that's discouraging. It's great to have so many people so excited about the presidential race, but it'll be interesting to see what actually happens at the polls in November. There's no way everything's been magically fixed since 2004.

POV: How does the system for voting in America compare with the systems in other countries?

Chevigny: A recent report showed that the United States has the weakest voting system in North America. Mexico has a better system than we do, and I'll use Mexico as an example of how America compares with other countries because other industrialized countries have systems more similar to Mexico's.

Mexico has improved its voting system greatly over the last 20 years. In Mexico, poll workers are trained for two weeks, whereas in this country, they're trained for a couple of hours, often by people who don't know the system very well themselves. In addition, in Mexico, it's a civic duty to work as a poll worker, so it's like doing jury duty in this country. People are picked out of a hat and they serve for a couple of weeks, and being a poll worker is a part of Mexicans' duty to help democracy function in their country. Mexican polling places also keep track of the problems that come up. If you run a polling place in Mexico, then at the end of the day, you deliver a list of every single complaint and problem that arose. We don't have that system in the United States; there's no way to keep track of the number of problems that come up.

POV: Are you and your team going to make a similar film for the 2008 elections?

Chevigny: A lot of people have asked us that question, and the answer is "no" because we don't have the resources or energy to do it. But my hope is that a lot of people will film the 2008 election. Filming encourages the transparency of the process. Since everybody has a camera now, I think it would be great if people go out and film their polling place during the 2008 election.