D.C. elections chief has few answers on long voting lines

December 10, 2012

Election Day voters at Eastern Market. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

More than a month after some District residents waited in hours-long lines to cast ballots during early voting and on Election Day, D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) thought that by now the Board of Elections would have figured out what happened and developed a plan to fix it.

Not so much.

Clifford Tatum, the board’s executive director, arrived at a Monday oversight hearing with few ready answers for Bowser’s questions about long lines and other issues, except to acknowledge that there had been isolated “missteps” amid an otherwise “successful election.”

Bowser wasn’t happy: “You’ve provided absolutely no substantive information to the council,” she told him. “That’s totally disrespectful to the people who came down to testify.”

Tatum said the board’s postmortem process was still underway, with staff focused on counting provisional ballots until late last month and with a pair of advisory neighborhood commission recounts still underway. A fuller report, he said, would be ready by February.

But Bowser pressed Tatum on several issues, such as long lines, particularly at early voting locations, where residents waited for hours even as some machines went unused.

“You think the administration of early voting in the District of Columbia was successful?” Bowser asked.

Tatum said it was. “Could it have been better?” he added. “Absolutely.”

He suggested adding more than the current eight early voting centers, but Bowser pressed him on why ballots were split up by precinct among several machines, leaving those machines from faraway parts of the city going unused while nearby residents waited and waited. Tatum explained that because of an increase in advisory neighborhood commission seats, there was an increase in the number of “ballot styles” — the particular mix of races for a precinct or portion of a precinct — that meant the city’s touchscreen voting machines could no longer hold all of the city’s ballot styles on one machine.

“I just don’t buy that,” Bowser said, referring to the suggestion that a few extra ANC seats would have such a dramatic impact. The board, she added, “dropped the ball” in not anticipating the problem and finding a earlier solution.

“I don’t want to ever be in that position again, where voters are stacked up and there are machines that no one is using,” Bowser said.

Tatum also addressed criticism that the board failed to communicate effectively in the runup to and on Election Day itself, particularly via its Twitter account. “Like radio silence,” Bowser called it.

Tatum countered that the board embarked on an “more assertive campaign” to inform voters via radio, cable TV and bus ads. As for Twitter, he acknowledged that the board has tweeted less since social-media-friendly public information officer Alysoun McLaughlin left in July for a deputy director job in Montgomery County.

After the personnel change and a September incident involving a partisan tweet from the board’s official account, Tatum said board members are “looking at” the role of social media. “Tweeting is not our official form of communication,” he said, “but we certainly recognize how social media plays into the process.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · December 10, 2012