Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Philip Pannell has been fighting for mail-in voting for decades now. He views it as a key strategy to increase voter turnout east of the Anacostia River, and it sure looks like his efforts are finally starting to pay dividends.

As the dust settles from the June primary and local politicos start sifting through the results, it’s clear that D.C.’s decision to mail ballots to every eligible voter helped boost participation in wards 7 and 8. And that’s no small thing, considering that politicians have been puzzling over how to reach more people in the city’s poorest, most underserved neighborhoods basically ever since the mayor-for-life finished his last term in office.

Nearly 27 percent of voters in Ward 7 (about 14,800 people) cast their ballots in this year’s contest, while nearly 21 percent (about 10,500 people) did so in Ward 8. Those numbers still place the east-of-the-river wards behind other areas of the city (Ward 2 had the next lowest turnout, interestingly enough, at nearly 30 percent), but these are the highest percentages residents of wards 7 and 8 have recorded since the 2010 primary that featured the bruising mayoral race between Adrian Fenty and Vince Gray (a Ward 7 resident). Throw in the fact that the two wards didn’t have Council races on the ballot in 2022, and these numbers look even more impressive.

It certainly didn’t hurt that there was a competitive mayoral race this time around, in addition to citywide contests for Council chair, attorney general, and at-large councilmember. But, as much as Loose Lips would like to believe people got excited to vote because of some extra media coverage of local campaigns, it seems that a spike in turnout of this size has to be attributable to a few other factors. Consider that turnout levels were also higher in 2020, the first year of universal mail-in voting, than they were in the 2016 presidential primary: not exactly a sleepy election in its own right.

There undoubtedly have been complaints about the cost of the COVID-era mail-in voting expansion, the long delays it can produce when tabulating results, or its purported effects on “civic culture.” But, with the permanent enshrinement of universal mail voting still up for debate at the Council, it’s worth reckoning with these results.

“Older people still get their entitlement checks in the mail, so they’re used to checking their mailboxes for important mail from the government,” Pannell, a longtime Ward 8 activist, tells LL. “People here are more dependent on transit than the rest of the city, it can be hard to get to a polling place. It really makes sense.”

Both wards saw smaller percentages of people vote by mail or drop box compared to other parts of the city, but a hefty majority of voters east of the river preferred those methods to showing up to the polls in person. And that’s significant for these Southeast communities, considering that mail service there has long been “spotty at best and shoddy at worst,” according to Ward 8 Democrats President Troy Donté Prestwood.

Markus Batchelor, a fellow Ward 8 Dems activist, recalls that the 2020 primary was a “nightmare” for those voting by mail given all the uncertainty about when ballots would arrive at people’s homes (he says things improved slightly in the general, when he was running for an at-large Council seat, but it was still a challenge). So it’s all the more impressive that people gave the mail a second chance.

“I was emphatically surprised that so many people relied on the U.S. mail for this,” Prestwood says. “The whole idea of voting by mail is a new concept, especially for those who are old school…It’s hard to change tradition, but it seems like people are coming around.”

Ward 7 Democrats Chair Wendell Felder suspects that many older people saw mail-in voting as the “safest route to take” with the pandemic still raging. And since his ward has a high population of seniors, it makes sense that it would see a higher number of mail-in ballots.

But Jimmie Williams, a former Ward 7 Dems chair who just won a spot on the city’s Democratic State Committee, says he also heard from plenty of younger people who embraced the mail.

“People were sitting at home doing nothing during COVID, so they got in the habit,” Williams says. “I saw lots of younger people who were not super voters out voting because they just realized it was easier. Once the ballot showed up at their house, they got engaged.”

Batchelor agrees that “convenience” was a factor for just about every voter he spoke with, and noted that many preferred drop boxes instead of just relying on the mail. About 4,200 of Ward 7’s 9,000 mail votes came via drop box, per the D.C. Board of Elections’ data, as did roughly 2,500 of Ward 8’s 6,000 votes.

“Mailboxes are very hard to find in Ward 8 these days, but these drop boxes were everywhere,” Batchelor says. “They were at schools, libraries, community centers, all places where people were used to going. They were open 24/7. It just seemed like a really secure repository.”

It is also impossible to discount the role that the candidates themselves played in driving turnout higher. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White’s mayoral bid wasn’t exactly the most successful, but most activists suspect he drove people to vote who wouldn’t have otherwise. (Though his effects on the race were limited, as Prestwood notes that he only tied with Mayor Muriel Bowser in the influential Ward 8 Dems’ straw poll, and lost to her by about 600 votes among his Ward 8 constituents on primary day.)

Add in a pair of at-large candidates with roots east of the river in Nate Fleming and Dexter Williams, and Batchelor believes it “makes a difference when people see folks from the community as part of the process.” Pannell also credits other citywide campaigns for making wards 7 and 8 a priority and working to drive turnout. In particular he points to Erin Palmer in her bid for Council chair. But not all of them earned his praise.

“The turnout would’ve been that much greater if the mayor’s campaign had been more energetic here…but it was virtually nonexistent,” Pannell says. Felder disputes that notion and argues that Bowser devoted a ton of time and attention to boosting new development east of the river, winning over many voters in his neck of the woods. Pannell’s critiques only go so far, of course—he says he still voted for Bowser, preferring her stance on hiring more police.

In any event, Pannell would rather not rely on specific candidates to boost turnout, and prefers instead to see the city keep pushing for more reforms to make it easier to vote. For instance, Williams suggests that elections officials keep working to simplify ballots for voters who still struggle with reading comprehension—as the head of the Washington Literacy Center, he notes that about half of the 119,000 people in D.C. with low literacy live in wards 7 and 8.

“You had one section of the ballot this year where it said ‘choose up to seven’ but there are only seven options,” Williams says. “That’s hell for people struggling to read to understand…These are lawyers writing these, but they need to be consulting with experts about how to simplify this.”

Ballot harvesting” may be the obsession of the moment for the Fox News set, but Pannell also notes that the practice is perfectly legal in D.C. (for now, at least). If the city keeps mailing ballots to every voter, then Pannell suggests that door-to-door canvassers could easily collect them and remove one last hurdle for anyone on the fence about voting. He even sees room for churches or other civic groups to hold special events encouraging people to bring their ballots if they want a free meal.

“You really need a cadre of trusted messengers to work on this,” Pannell says. “I’ve lived here 35 years and people would trust me if I said, ‘I’ll mail your ballot for you.’”

Until there’s more of that effort on the part of local politicos, Pannell doesn’t believe anyone should go “patting themselves on the back” about these turnout increases. Most other wealthy nations would be appalled at a 27 percent turnout rate, after all.

But in neighborhoods where many people sit out elections because they believe the government simply doesn’t care about their communities, any uptick in voter participation is something deserving of more attention (and further study).

“I don’t look at our ward as being in a competition with another ward,” Prestwood says. “We’re in competition with ourselves. We just want to do better each time we vote. And we still have more work to do.”