D.C. board of elections needs a leader as big reforms approach

Thursday, July 22, 2010

THE RESIGNATION of the chairman of the District's Board of Elections and Ethics brings into sharp relief the challenges facing this critical agency. Not only must it oversee one of the city's most politically charged elections, but it must also do so while implementing far-reaching changes in election procedures. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray need to put aside their political differences and come up with a solution to ensure the credibility of the electoral process.

Errol Arthur announced this week that he will step down from the board on Aug. 2, just weeks before the Sept. 14 primary face-off between Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray. The three-member board has been operating with only two members since February 2009, and Mr. Arthur's open job, if left unfilled, would render the board unable to operate. Mr. Fenty twice nominated Mital Gandhi, a business executive backed by Republicans for the non-Democratic seat on the board, but the nomination stalled in the council.

It was irresponsible of the council to recess for the summer without taking action on this matter. But we would urge Mr. Fenty, given his self-interest in the coming election, not to use his authority to make an emergency appointment. If he can't persuade council members, who would have to come back into session, to confirm Mr. Gandhi, surely he can find other candidates in this capital city with experience and expertise in election procedures whom the council would be hard-pressed to turn down. On Tuesday, council members David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) gave City Administrator Neil O. Albert such a list.

The need for a functioning board becomes all the more important when viewed against the unprecedented election reforms taking effect this year, the result of legislation sponsored by Ms. Cheh. For the first time, D.C. voters will be able to vote early, to cast absentee ballots without an excuse, to avail themselves of same-day registration and voting, and to cast citywide ballots outside of their home precinct. No other jurisdiction in the country has ever attempted to simultaneously institute all these innovations, which require new equipment and new procedures.

As Rokey W. Suleman II, the board's executive director, recently told the council, "to a person, there is not an election official that I am acquainted with that doesn't think that this agency faces one of the largest challenges ever faced by an elections office . . . they are amazed that we are doing all of this at once and thankful it is not them." While it would have been prudent to roll out these laudable changes on a different timetable, what's most needed now is that the mayor and council ensure that the city is indeed ready for voters to go to the polls.

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