Democracy's high price

Saturday, January 22, 2011

ELECTION OFFICIALS in the District are worried they can't afford the costs of the city's upcoming special election for an at-large D.C. Council seat. Among the ideas to save money is limiting the places where people can vote. But changing the rules so close to the election comes with its own cost to the integrity of the process. It's important that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the council ensure that there is sufficient money for election officials to do their jobs.

The April 26 special election, which also will feature races for two ward members of the State Board of Education, is estimated to cost $829,000. The council has only budgeted $590,000 for the voting - prompting Rokey W. Suleman II, executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, to develop alternative plans. Foremost was a proposal to cut the number of voting places. Instead of operating all 143 polling places on one day, the city would hold three days of voting at 16 vote centers (two per ward), at an estimated cost of $624,000. Mr. Suleman said he favors voting in all the precincts, but, in the face of a 10 percent cut to his budget, he rightfully wants to know where the money will come from.

Voting centers are not without merit. They have been used successfully in other states. Special election turnout is usually light (typically between 7 percent and 13 percent of voters). The recent success of early voting showed D.C. residents' willingness to vote outside their regular precincts, and the city's small size is clearly an advantage. Indeed, there is some evidence that voting centers, if operated properly, produce higher turnout.

Nonetheless, changing long-established rules less than 100 days from the election is problematic. Discussion should have occurred long before campaigns were underway and candidates had come forward. We are glad that council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the committee that oversees the board, has said her preference is to keep all 143 voting precincts open. Mr. Suleman said he will go back to the drawing board to try to find additional savings. If he can't, surely the District can come up with money to fulfill such a basic tenet of government.

Complicating the issue is the fact that neither Mr. Gray nor the council is exactly a neutral player in the election. Six council members and Mr. Gray have endorsed interim council member Sekou Biddle (D). That underscores yet again the problems the District confronts in not having a fully staffed board of elections with bipartisan representation. The last Republican member resigned after the 2008 elections. It's unacceptable that yet another election is going to be conducted without minority representation on the board overseeing the voting. We urge Mr. Gray to make a priority of this important board.

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