Georgetown community activist Westy Byrd has come up with a new interpretation of the District’s motor-voter law.
In her shrill campaign to keep Georgetown University (GU) students out of local politics, Byrd pushed her very own amendment to the Voting Rights Act: She implored District officials to require a valid D.C. driver’s license as a condition for voting.
Sounds like a pretty sound strategy. After all, literacy testsyesteryear’s tried-and-true strategy for voter deterrencewouldn’t work too well on students at one of the country’s elite universities. But requiring the students to endure a full day of lines at the motor vehicle bureau, Byrd apparently reasoned, would accomplish the same end. If they still wanted to vote in the District after that ordeal, then Byrd would force them to file local income-tax returns and pay whatever other D.C. taxes and fees she could find.
Byrd, a member of the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and a leader of the campaign that pulled the plug on GU’s proposed campus power plant, ran unopposed in Tuesday’s election. But two GU students, Rebecca Sinderbrand and James Fogarty, were running for seats held by Byrd’s allies on the ANC.
In Georgetown, heated ANC battles overshadowed all other contests, including council and school board elections.
A campus voter-registration drive added more than 1,000 Georgetown students to D.C. voter rolls, according to campus voter-registration chairman Dan Leistikow. And most of those students, Leistikow said, live in the two ANC districts where Sinderbrand and Fogarty challenged incumbents.
Byrd chaired the committee that redrew Ward 2’s ANC boundaries following the 1990 census. Not surprisingly, the boundaries split the campus into six different ANC districts, which minimizes the threat of GU representation on the Georgetown ANC. But the campaigns by Sinderbrand and Fogarty threatened Byrd’s longstanding efforts to deny Georgetown students a voice in ANC politics, even though the university routinely comes up in ANC votes.
“The students are claiming that they don’t have to meet the requirements of being D.C. residents,” Byrd says. “And I’m claiming, on behalf of many residents, that in fact the students do have to meet residency requirements, and prove that they intend to stay in D.C.” At this rate, Byrd will soon join Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in requiring would-be voters to furnish proof that they own property in the District.
Residency arguments aside, Byrd wants to keep students off the ANC because they are unlikely allies for her neighborhood agenda. Students like pizza; Byrd fought to the death to keep Papa John’s from opening an outlet a couple of blocks from the university. And students may be inclined to side with the university in land-use squabbles; Byrd fought the power plant and also opposes a GU proposal to allow traffic to hang a left from Canal Road onto campus.
Byrd’s warnings about the menace of nomadic university students participating in local elections fell on unsympathetic ears down at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
Acting city elections director Alice Miller told Byrd that the law does not require D.C. voters to first obtain valid driver’s permits or meet any of Byrd’s other conditions. According to Miller, the law requires only that voters in the District register 30 days prior to an election and not be registered anywhere else.
In fact, Miller told Byrd that her husband was a registered D.C. voter but held a driver’s license issued in a neighboring state. Byrd quickly added Miller’s husband, Lenny, to the list of voters she wanted disqualified from Tuesday’s elections.
“Her statement to me was that he should not be voting,” Miller recalled this past Monday. “And I said to her, ‘No, he should not be driving.’”
After Miller’s tutorial in election law, Byrd cranked out letters of outrage to all the local bigwigs: Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., D.C. Corporation Counsel Charles Ruff, financial control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer, House D.C. subcommittee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), and anyone else she could think of. She asked for nothing less than a “joint investigation” of the students’ voter registrations “to prevent voting by unqualified electors” and “to insure that all bona fide new residents have paid, and are paying, D.C. taxes and fees as required of all residents.’”
Instead of sidelining Georgetown students from local elections, Byrd claims her actions would pad the treasury by forcing students who vote here to pay their taxes herea “financial boondoggle,” in Byrd’s words. LL doubts that the city’s coffers would have to make space for the sudden infusion of tax dollars from GU students, who spend their summers as lifeguards and unpaid interns on the Hill.
But the board of elections was not swayed by Byrd’s alarmist droppings. Instead of launching a residency-verification campaign, the board has decided to investigate whether Byrd’s actions amount to voter intimidation.
“It is erroneous to assert that as a precondition to voting, students must pay taxes or obtain a local driver’s license,” Board of Elections Chairman Benjamin Wilson stated in an Oct. 25 letter to Byrd.
“It has long been established by the Courts that students have the right to register to vote in the jurisdiction where they attend school as long as they are not registered in any other state,” Wilson’s letter continued.
However, Wilson agreed with Byrd that an investigation may be in orderan investigation of Byrd, that is. Byrd’s campaign, Wilson wrote, “may be suggestive of voter intimidation that is actionable.” The board plans to schedule a hearing soon “to determine whether this most recent action and other alleged activities have the effect of intimidating legally registered voters,” said the letter.
Despite that warning, Byrd and her allies were in Precinct 6, at Carlos Rosario School at 35th and T Streets NW, on Election Day challenging the right of Georgetown students to cast their ballots, and creating long lines at the polls.
By late afternoon, voters had to stand in line nearly 90 minutes to cast their ballots. Some elderly voters gave up and went home, complaining that Tuesday marked the first time they had failed to vote in a presidential election.
“We had a choice: bottleneck this or let nonresidents vote,” Byrd told an exasperated Georgetown resident outside the polling precinct Tuesday evening. After finally casting her ballot, the woman stopped outside to complain about the long lines, which she attributed to “the harassment” of students.
In search of further proof of a GU conspiracy to take over ANC politics, Byrd pointed to the university vans, which ferried student voters from campus to the polls all day long.
In the end, Fogarty crushed incumbent Beverly Jost 401 to 162, and Sinderbrand trailed incumbent Patricia Scolaro by six votes, with write-ins and special ballots yet to be counted. Byrd vowed to challenge Fogarty’s victory in court.
Byrd ignited the voting controversy in September when she distributed fliers around campus warning students that if they registered to vote in D.C. they would be forced to meet “the residency requirements” of paying taxes and obtaining D.C. driver’s licenses. And if they became residents of the District, she added, they would run the risk of losing their scholarships from their home states.
“She has done everything that she can to stop students from voting,” Leistikow said this week.
But he said Byrd’s tactics have actually “fired up” students and may have increased turnout on Tuesday.
Historically, the District has gone out of its way to facilitate voter registration. The homeless, for instance, don’t have to list a mailing addressjust a “fixed place” such as a street grate or cornerto register to vote. Courts have upheld the “fixed-place” provision.
Reagan assassin manqué John Hinckley may be the only D.C. resident denied the right to vote here. Hinckley, an involuntary resident of St. Elizabeths Hospital, was denied a voter-registration card after the elections board ruled he had been judged insane and was a resident here against his will.
If he had his wits about him, the board concluded, he would choose to reside and vote in his home state of Colorado rather than in D.C.
LL can’t argue with that logic.
Perhaps if Hinckley would apply for a D.C. driver’s license and file tax returns here, Byrd might take up his cause and get him registered to voteas long as he promised to stay out of ANC politics.