At the anniversary of the January 6 uprising, member of the ward council 6 Charles Allen held a public hearing on a bill he and other supporters said would promote access to elections.
Allen introduced the Election Modernization Act Amending Act, 2021 in November with six colleagues. The bill was designed to make some of the changes in the 2020 election permanent, address issues with some measures and expand others. Thursday’s hearing before the Justice and Public Safety Committee, chaired by Allen, saw a mix of support to address access issues, pressure to push the bill further and questions about how some aspects of the bill might work with limited resources.
During the first election of the pandemic era, DC officials limited physical voting sites and expanded absentee voting. Queues of several hours for the June 2020 primary recalled the recent windings COVID test lines. Some residents, especially in communities east of the Anacostia River, said they never received a mail ballot despite their request; others did not know if their mailed ballots had been counted. About 1% of the ballots cast in DC were also rejected due to signature issues.
Among other measures, the bill would oblige the electoral council to:
• Send registered voters prepaid mail-in ballots for each election.
This widely supported measure requires significant funding, Monique evans, executive director of the BOE, underlined. She said the mail-in voting program costs around $ 1 million per election.
• Ensure that at least 100 ballot boxes are set up in accessible locations for 10 hours or more per day throughout the advance polling period until polling day.
Twelve or 13 ballot drop sites per ward are not enough, said Zach Israel, Neighborhood Advisory Commissioner for 4D04 at Petworth and Brightwood Park. He wondered aloud how accessible the walk of 15 minutes or more to his nearest ballot drop-off location, the Petworth Library, would be for a person with a physical disability.
Allen’s bill would require at least 100 drop boxes placed across the district, but BOE could implement more than that, Allen pointed out. The bill would almost double the 55 physical ballot boxes across the district in 2020.
• Send voters updates on the status of their ballots and any signature verification issues.
Zacharie Parker, chairman and representative of Ward 5 of the DC State Board of Education, said the bill’s electronic voting status system should go hand in hand with advocacy for residents, especially in underserved neighborhoods, to have a easy access to physical voting centers or drop boxes.
Parker, who is running for Ward 5 council seat, said he was not sure what happened with his ballot in the 2020 election, so he went to vote in person just in case. Citing the technological divide – and the technological trust divide – in his neighborhood as well as in wards 7 and 8, he asked, “How do we ensure that ballot tracking is accessible via technology, but Also [by] other ways where people may not have easy access to a phone or computer? “
Evans raised concerns about the requirement to provide updates on voters’ ballots. “Proactively notifying every voter of the status of a mail-in ballot is a Herculean task,” she said. More updates require more funds, she added.
• Create “voting centers” where all eligible voters can vote during early voting or on election day, rather than having to go to a specific polling station.
• Make Election Day a public holiday in Washington to allow schools to serve as neighborhood polling stations and show young people the importance of voting.
• Keep the electoral data portal and dashboard up to date and user-friendly.
•Support the ANC (currently Joel caston), which represents residents incarcerated at DC Prison, in voting education and civic engagement practices.
That support would require additional staff to work with the commissioner, said the director of the DC Department of Corrections. Quincy stand. It also means the agency will need more funds to coordinate voter education and the distribution of voting materials.
A bigger problem may be the pesky logistical hurdles to ensure incarcerated residents have access to the ballots in the first place. A ballot is considered “legal mail”, but the Prisons Office does not consider voter registration forms as such, notes Kathy chiron, president of the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia. BOE staff process these forms to enable the system to issue ballots. The BOP requires that mail sent to incarcerated persons contain the person’s identification number in the address. But DC’s voter registration form has no place to enter the number, and BOE’s position is that it is not allowed to ask for it, Chiron explains. There is also a logistical issue with signature verification for incarcerated residents. DC officials will need to work together to resolve such obstacles for this historically disenfranchised community.
–Ambar Castillo (advice? email@example.com)
NOTE: This post has been updated to clarify details about logistical barriers with DC incarcerated ballots
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