longtime Ward 8 organizer Philip Pannell
Philip Pannell Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Are you pumped for election day this Tuesday? LL’s not talking about the mayoral primary—that was in April. Or the general election, which is still four months from now. Instead, District voters will go to the polls next week to cast ballots for a special election for Ward 8’s seat on the State Board of Education.

A special election to fill a position on the toothless State Board of Education isn’t anyone’s idea of a hot race. But even if District residents aren’t paying attention to it, they are paying for it. Holding the election will cost roughly $300,000, according to D.C. Board of Elections spokeswoman Tamara Robinson.

That might seem steep, but according to a draft budget prepared by the DCBOE, even running a small election costs a lot of money. Printing fees are expected to cost around $38,500, while voting systems cost $37,000. $43,730 will go to payments to poll staff, including $28,200 just for election day work.

That’s in line with what the District has paid for other recent special elections, including $317,000 for a 2012 Council race in Ward 5. 2013’s city-wide at-large special election cost $832,788—give or take $30,000 that had to be spent on a mailing after the elections board botched a postcard about the race.

Even for a city that’s already seen three special elections since 2011, though, the special Ward 8 vote stands out for its wastefulness. The election could have piggybacked on the general election and been on the ballot with all the other races being decided in November, a cost-saving move that would only keep the seat open for four more months.

Ward 8 residents wouldn’t exactly lose out if they didn’t have a place on the board until then, either. The State Board of Education has had only scraps of power since 2007, when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty’s school reform legislation dismantled the more powerful school board, created the SBOE in its place, and transferred school control to the executive branch. Earlier this week, Ward 6 SBOE member Monica Warren-Jones announced that she wouldn’t run for re-election, mentioning the board’s lack of power as one reason.

Which means the District is about to blow six figures on a race that could have been handled by just printing another entry on November ballots, all for a position that’s somewhere around Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in importance. Blame it on a body that’s seen its own share of special elections lately: the D.C. Council.

Not even the Board of Elections, which LL would expect to be the biggest proponents of extraneous elections, wanted a vote this summer. After then-Ward 8 SBOE member Trayon White resigned from his position in March to take a job in the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the Board of Elections sent a letter to Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry asking him to consider legislation that would move the special election past the required 114-day election deadline and onto the November ballot. If the Council really wanted to fill White’s seat quickly, the letter said, the special election could be conducted by mail.

Despite the request, though, the Council didn’t do anything. Barry, who endorsed White in 2012 but has stayed out of the latest race, didn’t attempt to move the vote or push for mail-in ballots.

Instead, Barry’s office sent other councilmembers notice of a bill to move the election, but never introduced the legislation, according to spokeswoman Latoya Foster. She says the decision came after Barry talked with constituents worried about leaving the seat open.

“They came to the conclusion that it was wrong to not have a representative on the school board for that extended period of time,” Foster says.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, whose government operations committee oversees the elections board, says he deferred to Barry since the election would be in his ward.

That’s not good enough for SBOE candidate and longtime Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell, who’s earned an endorsement from the Washington Post. Pannell wanted a mail-in vote with limited open voting stations, which he says would have cost the city half as much as Tuesday’s vote.

“All of the voters could have been treated to dinner and drinks at Morton’s of Chicago,” Pannell tells LL.
Even some of the candidates in the race don’t seem to be particularly interested in it. The field started with six candidates in April, thanks in part to the rare opportunity to hold office in a ward that’s usually starved of political opportunities for people not named Marion Barry. But after challenges to signatures on ballot-qualifying petitions and candidate withdrawals by the likes of Shadow Rep. Nate Bennett-Fleming, now just two hopefuls will be on the ballot next week: Pannell and teacher Tierra Jolly.

“It is very depressing,” Pannell says. “I would like to think that I’m just so charismatic that my candidacy would cause people to stampede to the polls.”

Ward 8 has been proving Pannell right. As of Monday, only 55 people had cast ballots at early voting stations that have been open since June 30. Despite the appetite for intrigue in the ward’s political class—the Ward 8 Democratic organization periodically roils with leadership struggles, and the group’s straw poll provided mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser with a surprise win in January—there’s been little heat for the SBOE race. Pannell and Jolly haven’t participated in any forums or debates.

“When you say if we have any policy differences, I don’t know, because I’ve only been in the same space with her twice in my life,” Pannell says.

Which isn’t to say the Board of Elections isn’t trying to drum up interest. Ward 8 has been papered with notices in an attempt to drum up interest in the little-watched race, an attempt that, between yard signs, mailings, and advertisements, added $12,000 to the race’s price tag.

“They have signs all over the place, and I’ve never seen that even for regular elections,” says Jacque Patterson, a former Ward 8 Democrats president who was won over to Jolly’s side after seeing her aggressive door-knocking campaign.

The race’s humble status hasn’t stopped it from bearing the characteristics of more portentous District elections. Like Pannell’s Post endorsement—which Pannell supporter Sandra Seegars worries could amount to the “kiss of death” in Ward 8—and also tussles from the candidates over who’s truly an outsider to the ward.

Pannell points to Jolly’s work as a corps member for Teach for America as a sign that she’s being backed by the group’s supporters; it’s controversial in D.C. because of former schools boss Michelle Rhee’s association with it. (Jolly now teaches at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md.) Jolly, a 31-year-old native Washingtonian, counters that Pannell—who moved to the ward in the early 1980s—shouldn’t be accusing anyone of being a newcomer.

“Calling me an outsider is bananas, especially coming from someone who didn’t move here until the year I was born,” Jolly says.

Whoever wins on Tuesday, it’s clear who will have lost in the $300,000 special election: the District’s taxpayers. Then again, Pannell says, leaving the SBOE seat open through the November election might have raised an even more difficult problem.

“If you have a public elected position that can be vacant for nearly a year, it calls into question whether you really need it or not,” he says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery