D.C. Council Member Proposes Same-Day Registration and Voting

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 2009

District residents would be able to register to vote and cast ballots on the same day under a proposal that would remove nearly all barriers to participating in local and federal elections.

The legislation, set to be introduced Tuesday by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), would place no restrictions on early and absentee voting and would grant voting rights to many 17-year-olds. If approved, it would make the District a leader in efforts to try to increase voter participation.

"We put together a bill that will really make us a model jurisdiction for voter participation," said Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment. "For anyone who wants to vote, I want it to be a smooth, efficient operation."

The legislation came out of Cheh's review of how the city handled the 2008 presidential and local elections.

Cheh said many voters were frustrated by the District's policies on absentee voting during the presidential race. The September primary for local races was marred by an apparent computer glitch that generated thousands of phantom ballots that initially resulted in more votes being counted than cast.

In addition to making it easier to vote, Cheh's bill calls for a return to either paper ballots or guaranteed paper receipts from computerized voting machines. After each election, the Board of Elections and Ethics would have to conduct an extensive audit to make sure the results were accurate.

Cheh also wants to mandate that poll workers complete at least four hours of training, and she wants to set new standards for the board of elections, including requiring that its three-members be experienced in "elections law and procedure."

"It's not an indictment of the current members, but an insurance policy for the future," said Cheh, who is optimistic that the full council will approve the bill.

If it does, the new procedures would be in place by the 2010 mayoral and council elections. Cheh has inserted $330,000 in the fiscal 2010 budget to help pay for the changes.

Currently, an eligible voter has to register at least 30 days before an election to participate. The only voters eligible to cast an absentee ballot are those who will be out of town on Election Day or are hospitalized or disabled.

Thousands of people waited in long lines to vote early in the presidential election even though they did not have a valid excuse. If Cheh's bill is approved, the city would adopt "no fault" absentee voting. The board of elections would also be empowered to set up early voting locations across the city.

"A lot of people said, 'Wouldn't it be easier just to create an early voting mechanism?' " said Jesse Lovell, a spokesman for DC For Democracy, a progressive advocacy group that has been working with Cheh on the bill.

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