Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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On the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen held a public hearing on a bill he and other supporters say would bolster access to elections.

Allen introduced the Elections Modernization Amendment Act of 2021 in November along with six colleagues. The bill was designed to make permanent some of the changes that came about in the 2020 election, address issues with some measures, and expand others. The Thursday hearing in the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which Allen chairs, saw a medley of support for addressing access issues, a push for the bill to go further, and questions about how aspects of the bill could work with limited resources. 

During the first pandemic-era election, D.C. officials limited physical voting sites and expanded absentee voting. Hours-long lines for the June 2020 primary were reminiscent of recent winding COVID testing lines. Some residents, particularly in communities east of the Anacostia River, said they never received an absentee ballot despite requesting it; others weren’t sure if their mailed ballots were counted. About 1 percent of ballots cast in D.C. were also rejected because of signature issues.

Among other measures, the bill would require the Board of Elections to:

• Send registered voters mail-in ballots with prepaid postage for each election.

This widely supported measure requires extensive funding, Monica Evans, executive director for the BOE, pointed out. She said the mail-in ballot program costs about $1 million per election.

• Ensure at least 100 ballot drop boxes are set at accessible locations for 10 hours or more per day throughout the early voting period up until Election Day. 

Twelve or 13 ballot dropbox sites per ward isn’t enough, said Zach Israel, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for 4D04 in Petworth and Brightwood Park. He wondered aloud how accessible the 15-minute or longer walk to his nearest ballot dropbox location, Petworth Library, would be for someone with a physical disability. 

Allen’s bill would require at least 100 drop boxes placed throughout the District, but BOE could set up more than that, Allen pointed out. The bill would nearly double the 55 physical ballot boxes throughout the District in 2020.

• Send voters updates on the status of their ballots and any issues with signature verification.

Zachary Parker, president and Ward 5 representative of the DC State Board of Education, said that the bill’s electronic ballot status system should go hand in hand with advocating for residents, particularly in underserved wards, to have easy access to physical vote centers or dropboxes.

Parker, who is running for the Ward 5 Council seat, said he is unsure what happened with his ballot during the 2020 election, so he went to vote in person just in case. Citing the tech divide—and tech trust divide—in his ward as well as in wards 7 and 8, he asked, “How do we ensure that tracking a ballot is accessible via technology, but also [by] other means where folks may not have access to a phone or computer readily?”

Evans voiced concerns about a requirement to provide updates on voters’ ballots. “Proactively notifying each voter regarding the status of a mail-in ballot is a Herculean task,” she said. More updates require more funds, she added. 

• Create “vote centers” where all eligible voters can cast a ballot during early voting or on Election Day, rather than have to go to a specific polling site.

• Make Election Day a D.C. public school holiday to allow schools to serve as neighborhood polling places and to show youth the importance of voting.

• Keep the election data portal and dashboard up to date and user-friendly.

Support the ANC (currently Joel Castón), who represents incarcerated residents at the D.C. Jail, in voting education and civic engagement practices. 

This support would require extra staff to work with the commissioner, said Director for D.C. Department of Corrections Quincy Booth. It also means the agency will need more funds to coordinate voter education and ballot materials distribution.

A bigger issue may be pesky logistical hurdles to ensure incarcerated residents get access to ballots in the first place. A ballot is considered “legal mail,” but the Bureau of Prisons doesn’t consider voter registration forms as such, notes Kathy Chiron, president of the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia. BOE staff process these forms to enable the system to issue ballots. BOP requires that mail sent to incarcerated people contain the person’s ID number in the address. But the D.C. voter registration form doesn’t have a place to enter the number, and BOE’s stance is that it’s not allowed to ask for it, Chiron explains. There’s also a logistical issue with signature verification for incarcerated residents. D.C. officials will have to put their heads together to resolve such barriers for this historically disenfranchised community.

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

NOTE: This post has been updated to clarify details about logistical hurdles with incarcerated people’s ballots in D.C.

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