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Update: Brooke Pinto declared victory over Patrick Kennedy in Ward 2 after updated results increased her narrow lead. The unofficial results show Pinto is up by three points and 347 votes.
The conditions for D.C.’s 2020 primary were anything but ordinary. In response to several nights of protest and destruction downtown, Mayor Muriel Bowser implemented a 7 p.m. curfew despite the fact that polling locations throughout the District were open until 8 p.m.
Thousands of people occupied the streets for four days leading to Election Day, as they have in cities across the country, to protest the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer jammed his knee into Floyd’s back and neck for more than eight minutes, and general police brutality.
Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 105,000 people in the United States—more than any other country on Earth—and 470 people in D.C. The D.C. Board of Elections encouraged residents to vote by mail but seemed to hit a snag at every step of the way.
More than 90,000 D.C. residents requested mail-in absentee ballots, 50,000 of which have been counted. An untold number of requests went unfulfilled. Several people standing in voting lines Tuesday told City Paper that they requested an absentee ballot, but it never arrived. BOE also reduced the number of polling places from the usual 143 to 20 due to the pandemic.
So it is perhaps understandable that just before 9 p.m., with the line still wrapped around the block at Grady Middle School in Ward 2, one man lost his cool.
Wearing a blue t-shirt, sneakers, and a mask, the man turned and pointed his finger at the man standing behind him.
“You’re givin’ me fuckin’ flack for asking for six feet,” he said. “Seriously, in this time when people are dealing with anxiety, and they’re worried about catching the virus, and maybe they’re living with old people, you’re giving me a hard time about asking for space.”
“You’re one petulant fuck,” said the other man, who was holding a dog on a leash. “You’re a petulant baby. Turn the fuck around.”
A third man, wearing a Harvard Law School shirt, left his spot in line to remind the two gentlemen that they were grown adults and cursing in front of a child.
“Just disengage from each other. Just disengage,” the Harvard Law School guy said. “Just leave it alone. It’s not going to get any better by doing this, and you’re doing it in front of kids. It’s embarrassing for all of us.”
A volunteer poll worker, who noted that he did not get paid enough for this, asked everyone to “take a collective chill pill.”
Approaching 3 a.m., the Board of Elections released the unofficial results. Progressive challenger Janeese Lewis George leads incumbent Brandon Todd by about 1,500 votes, and is claiming victory while a number of mail-in ballots remain uncounted. She tweeted this morning that she “expects this lead will stay stable or grow slightly as remaining data arrives.”
In Ward 2, Brooke Pinto, a late entrant in the race, leads longtime Foggy Bottom advisory neighborhood commissioner Patrick Kennedy by about 100 votes. In Wards 7 and 8, incumbents Vince Gray and Trayon White cruised to victory.
Former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans didn’t crack 300 votes, which puts him in seventh place out of eight candidates.
City Paper dispatched reporters to polling locations throughout the District. Here is our report from primary Election Day 2020.
Tensions were considerably lighter earlier in the day and in other places across the District.
At Benning Stoddert Community Center in Ward 7, speakers set up in candidate Kelvin Brown’s tent blasted Funkadelic, and candidate Veda Rasheed’s team grilled hotdogs and turkey burgers. (Anyone was welcome to have some food, says Louis Sweeney, who worked on Rasheed’s campaign, not just those who vote for Rasheed.)
A masked Councilmember Vince Gray gave fist bumps to people standing in the line that stretched behind the rec center.
Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd apparently hired a mariachi band. And at the Malcolm X Opportunity Center in Ward 8, campaign workers shouted through bullhorns while R&B songs played in Councilmember Trayon White’s tent.
Alyce McKenzie was about halfway through the line and had been waiting for over an hour with her 8-year-old daughter Zyion. She graduated from Ballou Senior High School, she guesses, a few years behind White.
“I’ve been a [resident] of Ward 8 now for as long as I can remember,” she says. “There’s a history there. I’ve seen the progress and the struggle. I don’t want to give up on him, so I’m going to stick it out.”
McKenzie, a medial assistant who has to take a ride share to her job in Georgetown every day, says she cares most about public safety.
“I want to see more activities for the children,” she says. “If they have places to go, I think the crime on the street would be less. Everything changed for me when I had a kid. Everything I would have wanted for myself fell to the back burner.”
At Columbia Heights Community Center in Ward 1, voters waited for more than four hours to cast their ballots, and at the Masonic Temple on U Street NW, voters waited more than three hours.
The last person in line at Columbia Heights was Katie Stein, a registered nurse at Children’s National Hospital. Stein arrived just after 8 p.m., when polls closed, but staff with the BOE cut her some slack because she was late due to work. After working a 13-hour shift, Stein would have to wait several hours to vote; the line wrapped around several blocks. “I’ll try to make it,” Stein told City Paper. She was exhausted and nervous about staying out past the 7 p.m. curfew, but her determination to make her voice heard kept her standing in line.
At Ida B. Wells Middle School on Sheridan Street NW, the wait time was similarly long, with the line stretching around the school. Kiana Harper and Kat Rosenthal, two strangers, were still in line at 9:30 p.m. and had gotten to talking after waiting nearly three hours. They’d still need to turn the block before even getting close to the front doors where only a few people at a time were allowed to vote. Both said they’d showed up just after 6 p.m. and were hopeful they’d only need to wait another hour and were determined to stay.
At the very end of the line, Amos Hochstein was also hopeful for an hour or two wait, though his spot in line was nearly two blocks behind Harper and Rosenthal. He arrived at the polling station at 6 p.m. but had given up his spot in line to make his kids dinner before returning just before 8 p.m. He grabbed a granola bar from volunteers for George who were handing out snacks.
“Seniors should not have to wait in this line,” said Connie Lee.
Lee arrived at Ida B. Wells mid-afternoon when the wait time was at least an hour. She didn’t trust that her ballot would get counted if she voted by mail. The tradeoff was visiting a crowded vote center during the pandemic. Lee, who was wearing a mask, has friends who died of COVID-19, so she was nervous about contracting the disease herself, and let every campaign staff member who encouraged her to vote for Todd or George know her frustration.
Meanwhile, at One Judiciary Square in Ward 2, a few minutes before polls closed, a volunteer offered voters over the age of 60 the ability to jump the line.
James Harnett, a neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2, was in line at One Judiciary Square after Bowser’s 7 p.m. curfew, when he says law enforcement vehicles drove by and announced “the mayor has declared a 7 p.m. curfew. Go home!”
He says a Metropolitan Police Department officer tried to wave them away, but failed.
“Probably didn’t realize it was a polling place,” he wrote to City Paper in a text message. “But I mean why else would people be waiting in line?”
A similar scenario played out at Hardy Middle School. As the line stretched down 35th Street NW, an MPD car rolled down Wisconsin Avenue NW, and an officer gave the same curfew warning. MPD Second District Commander Duncan Benlion walked up and down the line of voters clarifying that they were exempted from the curfew.
“Our officers are giving warnings when they see groups of people,” Benlion said. “Wisconsin is a major corridor, so if any warnings bled over through our PA system, it was not intended at all at voters.”
At one point in the afternoon, Todd visited Ida B. Wells Middle School, accompanied by Mayor Bowser, who was sporting a green Brandon Todd hat.
Todd said he was not concerned about turnout given the mayor’s curfew.
“Maximum turnout is always the priority,” Todd said.
George’s campaign manager, Michelle Whittaker, expressed concerns that long lines and a curfew scheduled an hour before polls close would discourage voters. At Raymond Recreation Center on 10th Street NW, Whittaker knew of at least one woman who saw the line, heard the wait time would be an hour, and left.
“We know this happens in our elections regardless of there being a pandemic,” Whittaker said. “We need to figure out ways that people can be able to vote and not have to wait hours.” At midnight, Whittaker texted City Paper to say there were still roughly 100 people in line at Ida B. Wells.
The act of voting itself takes less than 10 minutes, but due to the pandemic, fewer residents could vote at one time, as officials tried to make space for social distancing at the polls. Many residents City Paper spoke to did not expect to vote in person. Carmel, who is retired, requested a mail-in ballot by emailing a form to BOE, as residents had been instructed to do. Her ballot never came.
“I was determined to come and vote,” she said as she waited in line at Ida B. Wells Tuesday afternoon. Carmel decided to vote in person because she wanted to elect a woman into government.
As curfew drew nearer downtown, some voters at One Judiciary Square grew wary. David Babayev said he knew voters were exempt from curfew, but the possibility that police might stop him on his 30-minute walk home was on his mind.
A volunteer told voters to grab an “I Voted” sticker in case they were stopped for being out past curfew. Star Downing wasn’t worried. Her young daughter, who stood next to her, would be her bodyguard, she joked.
Ward 2 candidate Jordan Grossman, who trails Pinto by 500 votes according to the unofficial count, walked up and down the line chatting with voters. He said he didn’t expect to stay long past curfew as he wanted to get home to his two-month old son, and criticized the mayor for imposing the curfew an hour before polls close.
“It’s so impressive how these voters are out here making their voices heard, even with everything going on,” he said. “What I’m hearing from these Ward 2 voters is they’re really ready for a change.”
Close by, an Evans volunteer leaned against a pole holding an Evans sign. Michael Ramirez told City Paper he’s been on Evans’ side since he was first elected in 1991.
“A lot of it had to do with Jack’s relationship with the LGBT community,” Ramirez said, adding that his partner worked in Evans’ office. He says his faith in Evans hasn’t been shaken, despite his ethics violations. In May, the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability fined Evans $35,000 on top of another $20,000 fine it issued last summer.
“I’m the first to say that he did violate the Code of Conduct—ethics of the City Council,” Ramirez said. “But I personally think the City Council went a little bit too far.”
“He’s definitely got the most experience of any of these candidates,” he adds, jerking his head at Pinto, who stood nearby in a bright pink blazer and mask.
For her part, Pinto was excited to finally be around people again. “The last couple of months, of course, we’ve been living on the phones and living over Zoom,” she said. Like Grossman, she said she worried people would be fearful of coming to the polls, thanks to both the pandemic and the presence of the National Guard, but was impressed with turnout.
“I’m really proud of our city and proud of the residents of Ward 2 and of every ward that are here and who have showed up,” she said.