Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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A venture capitalist and former Mike Bloomberg adviser is gearing up to launch an ad blitz against Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, aiming to pressure him into advancing mobile voting legislation that he’s sought to bottle up in his committee.

Bradley Tusk’s nonprofit Tusk Philanthropies is planning a “significant, five-figure ad campaign to launch next week” pressuring Allen to at least hold a hearing on legislation aiming to let D.C. voters cast their ballots from their phones by 2024, a spokesperson for the group tells Loose Lips. The bill is spearheaded by Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto and co-introduced by seven other councilmembers. That’s generally a good indication of legislation’s success, but Allen has no interest in moving it out of his judiciary and public safety committee for a full Council vote.

“The radio, TV, digital, and print campaign will strongly urge [Allen] to immediately hold a hearing on the bill, which would expand access to voting across the District,” the Tusk spokesperson wrote in a statement.

The problem for Tusk (who has also worked as a political adviser to Uber and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer) is that Allen seems unlikely to budge. It’d be one thing if he was facing a competitive re-election (he’s currently running unopposed in the Democratic primary) but as it stands now, he doesn’t have much incentive to bend to the whims of a rich out-of-towner.

It doesn’t help either that Allen’s opposition to the bill seems to be on principle, versus a crass political calculation. Allen spokesperson Erik Salmi previously told the Washington Post that he wouldn’t advance the bill because “he has heard from numerous elections and cybersecurity experts, as well as residents, with serious concerns” about the wisdom of pursuing electronic voting before the technology has matured to allow it to happen securely. Salmi tells LL he stands by that statement and will hold off commenting further until one of these ads actually materializes.

Allen appears to have a decent point here. For all of the pros of mobile voting (it may make things easier on blind and elderly voters, for instance, as attendees of a Wilson Building rally argued last month) there seem to be a number of disturbing downsides.

Cybersecurity wonks seem pretty firmly convinced that there just isn’t a good way to establish “end-to-end verifiability,” ensuring that each voter can see that their ballot has been cast and counted securely; one expert interviewed by NPR dubbed mobile voting “a really stupid idea.” Consider, too, the difficulties the D.C. Board of Elections experienced simply trying to move to a mail-in voting system—launching an entirely new mobile voting regime in less than two years feels like quite the risk.

None of that has stopped Tusk from aggressively pursuing the idea around the country, working to stand up pilot programs elsewhere and offering $10 million in grants for anyone that can develop some of the key technology behind mobile voting. Even with all that money, Tusk himself isn’t much of a known quantity around D.C. But he did manage to make a prominent local hire: Max Brown, a close ally of Mayor Muriel Bowser and chair of the Events DC board.

Brown helped him draft that legislation (and got it to Pinto’s office), according to emails the Post secured via public records requests, but his efforts may only be able to get him so far. It’s a bit odd that a committee that normally handles public safety legislation also takes up voting-related bills, but that’s how the Council has structured things. And that gives Allen a lot of power here. Chairman Phil Mendelson could bring the bill up for a vote on his own, or try to include its language in a future budget, but those are longer shots.

Hence, Tusk will attempt this ad campaign to try and force the issue. It’s a bit unusual to see ads targeting a single councilmember over a specific piece of legislation, so he gets points for novelty at least.

Although, Allen is not exactly a stranger to seeing negative ads in recent weeks: The DC Police Union has been a frequent antagonist, blaming him (and Mendelson) for the city’s rise in violence.