Testimony to DC Council on the Board of Elections

Quote from Matthew Hanson on need for election reform

Testimony to the DC Council on the Board of Elections by Matthew Hanson, Chief of Staff, DC Action for Children

We know that the easier it is for working families to make their voice heard, at the ballot box or in the Wilson Building, the better our policy outcomes will be because they reflect the needs of the people. In addition to undertaking a new voter education project, we will also support efforts to make our democracy more inclusive and to expand our research by publishing a Democracy Index, as part of DC KIDS COUNT, to track key indicators that measure the health of our local democracy, and its ability to effectively advocate for our young people.

I am here today to share my personal experience about the difficulties I encountered when I attempted to vote absentee in this primary and to testify on behalf of the organization I work for to make recommendations for how we should move forward. 

By now, many people are familiar with some of the failures that occurred during the primary, but they are worth repeating because many of them were foreseeable, and therefore preventable, and all were unacceptable. Challenges arose at every step of this process.

  1. Lack of effective communication. The pandemic unfolded quickly and despite the Board of Elections’ best efforts, information about how to request a ballot or vote was not shared as effectively as it could or should have been. For example, information about the election was originally excluded from the Mayor’s COVID-19 mailers and broadcast text messages, including--most grievously--during the first round of curfew messages which did not make it explicit that voting was allowed during this time.
     
  2. A faulty app and website. Contributing to the confusion were an unreliable app and website. Voters like myself would request their absentee ballot online and even though we received confirmation that our request was successfully received, the request would subsequently be lost in the system. If a voter was not diligently checking the status of their ballot, they might never have received it and would either have had to vote in person, or lose their opportunity to vote in this election. 
     
  3. Late or missing ballots. As we got closer to election day, voters increasingly wanted to safely cast their ballots from home so as not to risk coronavirus exposure. Unfortunately, the Board of Elections did not have the resources necessary to respond to the demand for ballots. As a result, some voters did not receive ballots in time or at all. This contributed to long lines at voting centers because many people had no choice but to vote in person because they never received their absentee ballot. 

It is worth noting that democracy activists and concerned residents sent a letter encouraging the Board of Elections to move to a vote-from-home election by proactively mailing every registered voter an absentee ballot. Voters would still have had the option to drop their ballot off in person, or vote in person on election day, but by sending every voter an absentee ballot we would have avoided many, though likely not all, of the problems that we encountered during the election. Instead, the Board of Elections said it was unprepared to send ballots to all registered voters, and required voters to request an absentee ballot instead. 

Many District residents attempting to exercise their democratic right to vote, myself included, requested ballots and either did not receive them, did not receive them on time, or had to make multiple requests to receive a ballot.  

  1. Long lines at the polls. There was a predictable loss of poll worker volunteers who were unable or unwilling to volunteer their support at voting centers because of fear of the coronavirus. As a result, voting centers were understaffed, while safety measures to maintain clean and safe polls resulted in unacceptably long lines and waits.

My personal experience mirrors that of many others, except that in the end, I received my ballot and was able to mail it to be received on time by the Board of Elections. 

Despite record high turnout, the practical effect of these failures was voter suppression. This is infuriating. While we decry voter suppression tactics used in other states and countries, what happened in the District does not provide a good example of how to carry out a safe election, or inspire confidence in our electoral process. While the results of the primary are not in question, it is only because residents were willing to stand in line for hours--some until after midnight--to cast their ballots. This is an awesome testament to people’s desire to show up and be counted. If we believe voter suppression such as lost or late ballots and hours long lines are wrong in places like Georgia, then we must acknowledge they are wrong here and ensure that this won’t happen again..

We can and must do better.

With that in mind, we strongly suggest that the Board of Elections and the DC Council consider taking steps to inspire greater confidence in our elections, and create a truly inclusive democracy. We are already experiencing economic and health crises. Let's not add a crisis of democracy to the list.

The voter turnout for the June primary exceeded expectations, and would no doubt have been even higher if so many people had not been quarantined at home. With the most important election of our lifetime this fall, and past as prologue, we expect even greater turnout in November and we must take the necessary steps now to guarantee that it is a safe and smooth election. 

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that too many of our systems are cracked or broken. We should not simply attempt to patch them up. Let’s take bold steps to make it easier to vote and to include more people in our elections to ensure every resident has a voice. 

What has become clear as a result of this pandemic is that we cannot, and should not want to go back to “normal.” The economic and health crises that we are facing have laid bare many of the underlying problems that many families face every day. It has also demonstrated weak spots in our democracy, while at the same time showing us how they can be easily remedied. We should heed the lessons from this primary and not let this opportunity go to waste. I’ve been encouraged in recent years as the Council, particularly under your leadership Councilmember Allen, has taken important steps towards a more inclusive democracy. I believe that moving forward, the Council should think and act more boldly than it has in the past and include adopting, or expanding certain policies, including:

  • Automatic voter registration. We should expand our automatic voter registration law to reach even more people at points of contact with the government. If we move to a vote-from-home system for future elections, this will help keep our voter roll up to date and make it easier for people, especially families who experience housing instability, to be registered and vote.   
     
  • Expand the franchise. We believe in extending the franchise to younger residents because we want to make sure that everyone has a voice in our elections and policy making process and is one reason we support the Vote 16 campaign, a youth-led effort that is building power to win young people the vote. Young people from across the District have been championing the right to vote by lowering the voting age to residents 16 years and older. According to the Kids Count data that DC Action maintains, there are more than 10,600 residents in the District between ages 16 and 17. Many of these young people are not just engaged in some of the most important debates we are having right now, but leading the very efforts that drive them, such as ending DC Public Schools’ contract with the Metropolitan Police Department. What better way to ensure the voice of directly impacted people is heard than making sure we listen to them in the Wilson Building and at the ballot box. 
     
  • Make hearings more accessible. Democracy is more than voting, it’s also about showing up and being heard. I’m proud of how quickly the Council has moved to make this year’s hearings accessible to people who want to testify by allowing us to deliver our remarks by voicemail or video chat. Once the pandemic is over, the Council should continue to allow people to testify remotely. It will make the process more open and accessible to families who may not be able to join because of accessibility, child care, transportation, or work obligations. 
     
  • Strengthen fair elections. Public financing of elections is key to ensuring everyday people are able to support their favored candidate and for candidates who do not have personal wealth to rely on or wealthy networks to tap into, to have a fair shot in our elections. 
     
  • Vote from home. Finally, let's actively move to a vote-from-home system for future elections while retaining an in-person voting option for those who want it. By mailing every voter a ballot, we will make it easier for many people, because of work, child care, transportation, or other challenges, who find it hard to vote and are often left out of the decision-making process as a result. Thankfully, the Board of Elections has corrected this for the upcoming general election and will now mail every voter a ballot. This is a step in the right direction but it should not be a one-time change. Voting from home should be our standard practice going forward.

We cannot afford to get this wrong. We need to ensure everyone in our community has a voice in our decision-making processes so they can feel confident that they are not just seen, but heard and listened to in the debates about the future of our city. Some of the solutions outlined above will require additional resources, but like other priorities we are considering this year, we should be investing in our democracy. Our support for these initiatives and more come from the fact that we believe in a just recovery.

While there may be a small cost to implementing some of these changes, we believe they are worth it and that we can and should pay for them ending wasteful corporate tax giveaways, responsibly using more of our rainy day funds, and raising revenue from our wealthiest residents and most successful businesses who have benefited from significant federal tax cuts in recent years. Particularly in a recession, every drop of revenue is precious, and we shouldn’t leave needed resources on the table when doing so could help create a more just and resilient future for the city. That is why we support the revenue strategies proposed by the Fair Budget Coalition in a community sign on letter and sent to the Council earlier this month. Let’s use those funds to support essential human services, and to move towards a more inclusive democracy.

In addition to supporting an inclusive democracy, we believe we should be protecting and investing more in the following areas:

  • High-quality, affordable, and accessible early childhood education and care. Early care is both instrumental in promoting healthy and positive child development and enabling parents to work, which contributes to both family economic security and our city’s economic health. While the District has demonstrated commitment to early childhood through several innovative initiatives, the fact remains that the available child care for infants and toddlers is not sufficient to meet the needs of working parents, and child care in DC is the most expensive in the country. Expanding child care subsidies, supporting professional development opportunities for educators, and increasing educator pay are all necessary steps to solving these problems. Especially in light of COVID-19, we must pay special attention to how to support early childhood education safely and effectively for the benefit of children, parents, and our workforce.
     
  • Home visiting programs. These provide a lifeline for parents and young children, particularly during the pandemic when many traditional services are closed or limited in scope. Trained home visitors offer guidance and resources to parents that can help improve child health and development, prevent child abuse and neglect, and facilitate opportunities for education and job training for parents.
     
  • Health care and health insurance for children of immigrants and children in low-income families. They are a critical component in the work to decrease health disparities across racial and income lines. The District is a national leader in immigrant health and has invested in community health centers with wraparound services that can help make both traditional health care and connections to resources that impact health such as nutrition programs such as WIC and SNAP more accessible for residents.
     
  • Youth experiencing homelessness. Programs like these have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Transitional housing programs are necessary to ensure that youth with deep mental health needs and too many adverse life experiences will have safe and secure places to live where they can receive wraparound services they need to stabilize today and thrive in future. Stabilizing these vulnerable youth today, will keep them out of our chronically homeless adult system in future.
     
  • Out-of-school-time programs. Families will attest that these programs play a vital role in social and emotional functioning of children and youth. The isolation, exposure to adverse childhood experiences, and loss of opportunity our young people are facing right now cannot be overstated. One in four children in DC have experienced a traumatic childhood experience—a number that is likely increasing during the pandemic. OST programs are important when it comes to providing safe places for kids to connect with each other and with caring adult mentors. The opportunity for young people to process the events of this year will be critically important. Providers are prepared to offer those safe spaces for our young people.