I am on a mission to track down Hugh G.
Rection. Yep, you read right. Hughthat’s Mr. Rection to those who have yet to make his acquaintanceis one of 341,489 voters registered in the District of Columbia. According to the voter registration rolls, he resides at 414 8th St. SE. When I pull up to the listed address, I’m in front of a D.C. fire station.
I enter the building with a little embarrassment. It’s not everyday you have to ask a complete stranger about Hugh G. Rection.
The lieutenant on duty doesn’t even chuckle when I ask him about Hugh. He shakes his head blankly when I explain that the fire station is the home address listed for Rection on his voter registration card. “That name I don’t know,” says the lieutenant. “Let me check with some of the other guys.”
A few burly D.C. firefighters playing cards in the break room giggle like schoolboys sneaking a peak at Playboy when asked about Hugh. When the laughter subsides, they say they’ve never seen or heard of him. And they sure as hell don’t know anything about his voting habits.
“It sounds like a joke to me,” the lieutenant finally declares with some seriousness.
Grass-roots activists like Steve Michael aren’t laughing, though. Michael spearheaded Initiative 57, a movement to make marijuana use for medical purposes legal in the District. To get the initiative onto the ballot, Michael and his cohorts needed signatures from 5 percent of registered D.C. voters. They came up 800 signatures shortthanks to fraudulent entries like Rection and other irregularities on the rolls. Michael says Sandra Seegars’ 1997 attempt to recall Mayor Marion Barry failed for the same reason: While the city loses more than 10,000 residents per year, the voter rolls are as crowded as ever.
Everyone, it seems, can blame inflated voter rolls for their troubles. At-large D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz believes the rolls prevent Republicans from getting elected in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Last week, Schwartz drafted a letter to Barry highlighting the problem and urging reform. “It’s been a joke for a long time,” Schwartz says. “But it’s not funny anymore. It’s serious.”
Michael has filed a complaint in D.C. Superior Court calling for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to review the initiative’s signatures again with updated rolls. “No elected official has ever been faced with recall election,” says Michael. “And there certainly is enough dissatisfaction with D.C. leaders, both current and former, for that to have happened.”
Bill O’Field, spokesperson for the Board of Elections and Ethics, openly admits that D.C. voter rolls haven’t been purged since 1987. That’s not because board members are shirking their duties, he claims, but because federal laws have made it illegal to remove names from voter rolls. “That’s the issue here,” O’Field says. “It’s not that the board isn’t doing something. It’s that we’re not allowed to.”
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 enjoins the board from striking names from the rolls until a canvass card sent to the registrant’s address is returned with a note indicating that the person has moved, died, oras in the case of Hugh G. Rectionnever existed. If the card doesn’t come back, O’Field notes, the name must stay on the rolls. The D.C. Office of Vital Statistics is charged with informing the board of voters who die. “Of course,” O’Field adds, “if someone has died in another country or in another state, we don’t always get that information.”
D.C. political activist Karen Szulgit began pouring over photocopies of the voter rolls after working on two failed petition campaigns. “I’ve already checked all the ‘Dover, Ben’s and found none. And I looked at ‘Hunt, Michael.’ There’s three that haven’t voted in six years,” she says. “I think we looked for ‘Freely, I.P.’”
Szulgit quickly adds that made-up names are only the beginning of the voter fraud problem in the District. The real source of inflated voter rolls is the large number of so-called “Ward 9” voterspeople who live outside the District but are still registered to vote in D.C. elections. “Hugh may be the poster boy, and I can go to the board and get him removed, but this all points to the bigger problem of Ward 9,” she says. “That’s something we haven’t even begun to tackle.”
To prove her point, Szulgit plans to run for the mythical Ward 9 council seat. Her campaign hasn’t officially geared up yet, but she does have a treasurer and a campaign manager. And there’s talk of planning a kaffeeklatsch to be held in Congressional Cemetery. Szulgit hopes the campaign will encourage D.C. lawmakers to update the rolls.
In the meantime, Szulgit and her supporters plan to clean up the rolls themselves. Szulgit is installing a hot line in her house so that people can call in anonymously to report any fraudulent or outdated registered names. If that doesn’t work, she says, she may just go to the polls in September and take pictures of people getting out of cars with Maryland or Virginia license plates.
“This is something people have been talking about for 30 years,” Szulgit says. “We all talk about it, we all joke about it, but we have to do something.”CP