DC Elections

By Christopher Williams

Southwest Voice Editor-in-Chief

Southwest Voice recently called for the District of Columbia to generate a semi-annual report on voter turnout rates by race. That article was positively received and widely circulated. In a follow-up, this paper seeks to raise concerns about additional issues concerning the integrity of elections in the District. We call upon the District to immediately study these issues and satisfactorily address these concerns in the current legislative session.

Order of Candidates on the Ballot - We first became suspicious when At-Large member Christina Henderson appeared at the top of the ballot in her race in 2020 to replace her former boss, David Grosso. Councilmember Henderson had served as Mr. Grosso's Deputy Chief of Staff. The field for the at-Large race was crowded with 23 candidates vying for one of two seats reserved for independent, Republican, or third-party candidates. Robert White, an incumbent, won the other seat. We have no evidence to prove that the DC Board of Elections managed the order of candidates that would contradict their public statement that candidates were randomly placed on the ballot through a public lottery. However, we find it too coincidental that the former senior staff of the Councilmember whose seat was open was listed first. This paper spoke with a major candidate in that race who was surprised by Ms. Henderson's win. We ask that the Council immediately investigate this issue and employ an impartial body to interview Board of Elections current and former staff. This position should not be construed to in any way to implicate Ms. Henderson.

Some have claimed that Robert White should have been listed before Trayon White alphabetically, but these claims are not consistent with the law. "The candidate whose name is pulled first from the container shall have his or her name appear first on the ballot; the candidate whose name is pulled second shall have his or her name placed second on the ballot; and this order shall continue until all candidate ballot positions have been determined."

The public lottery is live and available to the public for viewing. This paper seeks clarification about the law in the following scenario. If the Board of Elections randomly generated several lists in advance of the public lottery and re-ran a preferred list for the live public event, would this be consistent with the law? In other words, if the Board of Elections used a randomized list (one of many) for ballot order and opted to use this list, does the law on elections cover this scenario? Our reading of the law is that there is ambiguity in the law. Technically, the ballot order would be random, but managed.

Certified Election Results Published in DC Register - This paper has twice emailed the DC Office of Attorney General to seek clarification about the certification of election results. The DC Board of Elections and Ethics is required by law to publish election results in the DC register, "shall publish the results of each election and the nominees or winners in the D.C. Register". We could not find the 2020 election results in the DC Register, including certification of write-in Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) results for an election in Southwest. We could not find where the ANC6D-02 election, a race with only write-in candidates and no ballot-eligible candidates, was certified. The Office of Attorney General has not responded to our question other than to say that they are looking into it. In part, the letter reads, "I have looked extensively through the DC Register - by DCR issue and by sorting by the DC Board of Elections. Am I missing something? This search started from an inquiry whether write-in candidates are considered part of the certified election results. I can't find an answer to that question either." The letters, which can be viewed here, discuss the search parameters to find the certified election results.

Southwest Voice is calling for immediate attention to the integrity of elections in the District to include the issues that we raised in our previous public statement (below).

Our Public Statement on June 22, 2022

Southwest Voice urgently calls for the District of Columbia to generate a semi-annual report on voter turnout rates by race for the primary and general elections consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and the Racial Equity Achieves Results (REACH) Act. Without that basic data, the public cannot know how turnout differs by race or to support the study of structural or social influences that inhibit voter participation. Differ­ences between white and nonwhite voter turnout often point to underlying racial biases. Civic engagement in elections is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. Maximum engagement ensures optimal democratic functioning. It starts with understanding the influence of race in determining the willingness to engage in the political process.

We speculate that there are racial gaps in understanding the importance of primary elections in the District. For better or worse, the city is a Democratic Party stronghold in which voters, in effect, elect the mayor, most of our Council members, and Attorney General in June. General elections are mostly anticlimactic save for the Council elections for independent candidates. Many voters do not know this. In the District, a small share of the electorate - primary voters - basically determine city leadership. We doubt our District schools have generally taught civics from this perspective, so many voters may still place greater importance on general election voting. Data on racial voter turnout would tell us whether the 23% of registered voters who voted in the primary are reflective of the District's demographics. This paper suspects that white voters, which are 46% of the District's population, are overrepresented among primary election voters.

This paper also believes that racial groups differ in their agreement with whether their vote matters, meaning the belief that elections can meaningfully affect policies that impact their livelihoods. We often hear from minorities in the Southwest community that politicians will do whatever they want regardless of how well organized and engaged communities are. To a large extent, they are not wrong. Mistrust in government and attitudes about political indifference to systemic injustices are widespread and supported by the overwhelming facts. This paper has covered the struggles of the Black community in Southwest to combat environmental racism in Buzzard Point, displacement, gentrification, cultural erasure, and eroding affordability. Few Black communities in the District are as civically and politically engaged than Southwest. Yet, we are often relegated to work at the margins and expend personal resources on legal challenges and citizen research. There are currently no fewer than four lawsuits related to neighborhood change in Southwest. This also explained our categorical rejection of the candidacy of Ward 6 Councilor Charles Allen. His inattention to stark racial disparities and unyielding support of economic forces bent on structural racism are apparent. The District only began to reassess the industrial activities in Buzzard Point that had long impacted public housing communities once that area began to gentrify and attract a white population - Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said so.

Incumbents in citywide and Council election saw primary victories, which greatly concern this paper. Although we endorsed some incumbents, we broadly recognize the need for political turnover. The inclusion of race in voter registration data matters greatly. New Ward boundaries obscure not only patterns in voting behavior, but also social and health needs. (The new Ward map is currently in litigation.) Historically, Wards 7 and 8 have had lower voter registration and turnout. Ward 8 is a majority-minority Ward with the city's highest economic and health racial disparities. Its absorption of the high-income, gentrified neighborhood of Navy Yard distorts population measures on voting and social needs. Deep racial inequity in Ward 6, including Southwest, is masked by aggregate data as well.

Inclusion of race is consistent with the District's Comprehensive Plan of 2021. (This plan is also under litigation with two Southwest residents among 18 plaintiffs throughout the city.) In conjunction with the REACH Act, that plan sets in motion a re-positioning of racial equity throughout District government. Every District agency should have an organizational goal for achieving racial equity. An effort to gather racial data for every registered voter or to conduct rigorous research using stratified random sampling would be methodological options.