Despite the brisk fall morning and slow trickle of voters, D.C. Council at-large candidate Markus Batchelor and his campaign volunteers are in good spirits Tuesday morning, at the dawn of Election Day.
After 411 days of campaigning for one of two open at-large seats, a solo Batchelor arrived minutes after the doors opened at Malcolm X Opportunity Center to greet the first voters at his local precinct. Born and raised in Congress Heights, Batchelor is no stranger to campaigning —he’s served as the Ward 8 Representative to the State Board of Education since 2017 and before that, was an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. After bumping elbows with voters, volunteers for other campaigns, and Dr. Carlene Reid (who’s running to replace him on SBOE), Batchelor explains why Malcolm X is his first stop on election days. “I like to start at home,” he says.
The slow but steady flow of voters persists throughout the morning as Batchelor and campaign volunteer Jamal Holtz visit polling centers across Southeast and Northeast. Electra, a poll worker at Benning Stoddert Community Center, has been working at the site for the past two elections. Referring to today and early voting, which saw an increase in voters following the primary, she emphasizes, “this is not a regular turnout.” Meanwhile, line monitors at Union Market, Shadawn Huffman and Shermonta, say voter turnout was slow but steady. The two reported seeing many people dropping their ballots off as a band played in the street alongside Democracy is Delicious, a food truck handing out water and food.
At Hendley Elementary School, a local Christian group set up a table with water and snacks to support voters and poll workers. According to volunteer Whitney King, the group scheduled shifts for the day. “As long as people are waiting to vote, we will be out here,” King says.
Running on little sleep, Batchelor has spent the morning discussing his priorities as well as what it’s been like campaigning in a pandemic. Because he announced his run early, Batchelor was able to hold in-person campaign events before the coronavirus pandemic. He also believes they had a strategic advantage to digital campaigning. Still, he says, “even when you’ve done this before, none of the conventional wisdom applies.”
To voters, Batchelor stresses his passion for giving a voice to Ward 8. “It’s been almost a decade since an at-large member from the Council has come home to a community east of the Anacostia River,” he says. At 27, he would be the youngest person ever elected to the Council.
COVID-19 has only affirmed what Batchelor’s campaign sought to spotlight from the onset: D.C.’s deep inequalities, be it policing or the disproportionate impact of COVID on Black residents. Though the dynamic of the race changed, Batchelor says, “in the closing days of it … all the reasons we decided to run have been affirmed.”
Despite being young and progressive, Batchelor didn’t receive many endorsements from sitting Councilmembers or established progressive groups. While he feels confident his campaign proved it’s possible to run an independent race free of big money and establishment support, he says this race, to a certain degree, demonstrated what has been seen previously: That, by and large, progressive organizations are less likely to support Black candidates unless they’re running against a “more conservative Black incumbent in a Black space.” He continues, “when it came to an open seat in an at-large race, those conversations are much more difficult.”
Karen Lee, one of three Batchelor volunteers working Nationals Park, tells City Paper she’s been teaching government at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter school in Southeast for 11 years. Batchelor is a former student. When asked if she helped plant the seed that inspired him to run for office, Lee laughs. “I think the seed was planted long before I got there. Maybe I gave it a little water.”
Accompanied by both a current and former student, Lee arrived at the super voting center at 8 a.m. and says foot traffic has been slow, though one voter stopped en route to cast her vote to hug Batchelor. “I’m planning on voting for you, man!” she declared.
At 9:15 a.m., Holtz confirmed 100 votes had been cast at Nats Park, where campaign volunteers easily outnumbered voters. “We were talking about how the entire city has voted already,” Lee says, explaining that, in years past, she’d worry no one was voting, but today felt confident most D.C. residents cast absentee ballots or voted early.
That feeling was shared by Batchelor, who remarked throughout the morning what a strange Election Day it was without lines of people waiting to vote. However, Batchelor estimates that more than half the voters he spoke to in the morning hadn’t made up their minds regarding which two candidates they intended to vote for in the at-large race. One of the Nats Park volunteers believed people were making up their minds for down ballot races as they were voting and Lee suggested that while this year brought out more voters, they might have overlooked races beyond the White House.
A volunteer with another campaign says he cast his second vote for Batchelor because of Batchelor’s proposed guaranteed income program. Inspired by an experimental program started in Stockton, California, Batchelor says it’s about “filling the gaps” to help people escape poverty.
“Win or lose, I hope this becomes a conversation on Council,” he says. Batchelor hopes the conversations his campaign started, such as guaranteed income,continue on. “That was the most important part of all this.” As for the race, he’s also optimistic. “You never know, but I do feel really good about our chances.”