Toward honest campaigns

Monday, September 27, 2010

IT WAS ILL-ADVISED of the D.C. Council to try to enact emergency legislation involving election practices just weeks before the city's mayoral primary. The measure got caught up in political rhetoric and couldn't be considered on its merits. But with the Democratic race now decided between Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, the council is right to revisit the issue .

A hearing is set for Oct. 8 on a bill by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) aimed at prohibiting corrupt election practices, including vote-buying. The council overwhelmingly approved a similar measure in July, but it never went into effect. Mr. Fenty wouldn't sign it, and, with the council in summer recess, it died. Mr. Fenty believed that federal law already banned the practices targeted by the bill, and he worried about confusion caused by a hastily enacted law.

Ms. Cheh acknowledges that the bill echoes federal law but argues that there are advantages to having a local bill. Federal prohibitions apply only to elections in which a federal office is on the ballot; so, for example, a special election to fill the at-large council seat soon to be vacated with the expected election of Kwame R. Brown as council chairman would not be protected. Local legislation also would empower local election officials to give better guidance and regulations.

Events during the recent primary point up the need for more clarity on what are appropriate encouragements to vote and what are improper inducements. Why, for example, was the Fenty campaign warned away from holding free concerts as a way to encourage voting? It was alleged that some of Mr. Gray's supporters handed out supermarket gift cards to get people to vote; does that constitute a thing of value, or is it in keeping with a tradition of providing food to people headed for the polls? These are the kind of issues that need to be aired as the council considers this bill.

In addition, it is important for there to be disposition of the specific allegations of wrongdoing made by Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray during the recent campaign. The U.S. Attorney's Office doesn't comment on the status of investigations, but voters should know whether, in fact, there was any misconduct at the polls and whether it was willful. We hope authorities are able to set the record straight so that suspicions don't linger.

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