Joel Castón

Community activists are raising questions about the fairness of last month’s election for advisory neighborhood commissioner in single member district 7F07 after the D.C. Board of Elections disqualified a write-in candidate for a registration error and certified the race with no winner.

No candidate appeared on the ballot in ANC 7F07 this year. The single member district, which encompasses the D.C. Jail, Harriett Tubman Women’s Shelter, and St. Coletta School of Greater Washington, hasn’t had a commissioner since it was created in 2012, when the District redrew ANC boundaries to reflect new census numbers.

That didn’t stop some voters, however, from writing in their own candidates for the position. According to DCBOE, 23 write-in votes were cast for 7F07 commissioner, two of which went to Joel Castón, an inmate at the D.C. Jail.

Castón came inches from winning—he was the only candidate who signed an affirmation of write-in candidacy, according to information City Paper obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. But DCBOE ultimately disqualified him for being registered to vote at a former address in Ward 8, which falls in a different single-member district. “Based on the candidate’s residential address in the Board’s database, this individual does not qualify to hold office in single member district 7F07,” DCBOE tells City Paper in an email.

Castón, however, says he was given the wrong information, and that the address mix-up isn’t his fault. He tells City Paper that when he registered to vote, a jail employee instructed him to use his former address in Ward 8, even though he hasn’t lived there since he was incarcerated more than 26 years ago.

Adding to the confusion, when the time came for Castón to vote, he says he was handed a Ward 7 ballot. According to DCBOE’s “Track Your Ballot” feature, Castón’s ballot was “completed” after being received on Oct. 24.

“It really doesn’t make sense to me, and I think it was just a missed opportunity,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday. “I really hope that it can be remedied.” 

On Dec. 5, he tried to clear up the address issue by sending a sworn affidavit to DCBOE. “At that time, there was unclear guidance provided as to the address we were supposed to use when we registered, our current address at the DC Jail or our last DC address prior to being incarcerated,” the affidavit says.

DCBOE accepted the affidavit and corrected Castón’s voter address, but the result of the ANC election hasn’t changed—there is still no winner.

The outcome has frustrated advocates who say Castón shouldn’t be knocked out of the race for a mere paperwork error since, as an inmate at the D.C. Jail, he is unequivocally a resident of ANC 7F07. “There’s no question where he resides,” says Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. Schindler says the decision to disqualify Castón is absurd.

“It seems Kafkaesque,” he says. “You have a government agency that is saying that he used the incorrect address when they clearly knew where he resided. He was incarcerated by the government.”

Neighbors for Justice, a group that advocates for D.C. Jail residents, says the city didn’t do enough ahead of the election to inform inmates of the requirements to run for ANC. “These are District residents who were not able to access election information on their own,” the group wrote in a letter to D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. “They could not possibly know or follow eligibility requirements.”

In the run-up to the election, Neighbors for Justice had urged the D.C. Department of Corrections to pass out flyers informing inmates of their rights to run for ANC as write-in candidates. The advocates were motivated by a recent bill that restored the right to vote to D.C. residents serving felony sentences, thereby making them eligible to run for ANC.

The flyers were never handed out. DOC officials told Neighbors for Justice distributing election information was out of their purview. They passed the buck to DCBOE, who also refused on the grounds that encouraging inmates to run for ANC could compromise their neutrality as election administrators. 

Last week, commissioners in nearby ANC 6B passed a resolution denouncing the electoral process at the jail and urging city officials to fill the vacancy in ANC 7F07.  “The electoral process regarding the ANC election for residents at the DC Jail was neither fair nor equitable, given the circumstances in which these constituents reside,” says the resolution, which passed 8-1 after being introduced by ANC 6B08 Commissioner Chander Jayaraman.

But DCBOE says its decision to disqualify Castón is final. The agency declined to comment on ANC 6B’s claims that the electoral process in ANC 7F07 wasn’t fair. “DCBOE has no response to the resolution,” wrote a spokesperson for the agency in an email to City Paper.

Jayaraman, who will leave office in January, realizes that ANC 6B’s resolution is unlikely to retroactively change the election’s results, but he’s hopeful it can move officials to fill the empty seat. “We’ve got to go all the way,” he says. “If there’s 1400 people not being represented, then it goes contrary to everything that we’ve been talking about.”

Efforts to fill the vacancy before the next general election in 2022 could be hindered by the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this year, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation that prohibits the District from holding special elections during the public health crisis.

Even if those restrictions were lifted, residents of the D.C. Jail would need to collect 25 petition signatures from fellow residents to be eligible to run for the seat. That could be tricky—the jail is currently on a strict medical lockdown that has residents confined to their cells for all but one hour a day. “Getting the approval and escort in order to do that when the residents are on 23-hour lockdown is pretty daunting,” says Jayaraman.

Allen says that while it’s important for DCBOE to consistently follow election protocols, he thinks Castón should have been alerted in time to correct the registration issue. 

“I’m disappointed that they didn’t come up with a solution to be able to make sure he could be a candidate in good standing,” says Allen, who oversees election issues as the chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. 

A copy of Castón’s affirmation of candidacy City Paper obtained shows DCBOE received the document on Oct. 23, more than a week before Election Day. “It’s not like [DCBOE] wasn’t in communication—they knew that there was a write-in effort, and that there was a candidate who was trying to make sure that all the documentation was in good order,” Allen adds.

Unlike advocates, however, Allen says D.C. Jail officials deserve praise for how they prepared for the election. The 23 write-in votes in ANC 7F07 are “a testament to the Department of Correction’s efforts to get information out,” he says.

Allen says he plans on working to reinstate special elections when the council reconvenes for its next legislative session in January. “I believe that we should remove that restriction because now that we’re passed the general election, we can’t go two years with a vacancy being unfilled.”

Until then, D.C. Jail residents will remain without an ANC commissioner, a position that advocates say could be critical during the pandemic. In June, following a COVID-19 outbreak at the jail that killed an inmate and an employee, a judge ordered DOC to implement sweeping reforms, including more protections for inmates. The D.C. Department of Corrections did not respond to an inquiry from City Paper by publication time.

For Castón, the opportunity to represent fellow inmates can’t come soon enough, though he worries his disqualification could send the wrong message to future ANC candidates at the jail. “To run into a roadblock that was not of my own doing, I think we could have started off on a better foot.”