A City Council committee will begin a two-day hearing today on the snafus that snarled last year's general election and what can be done to avoid those problems in this September's Democratic primary.
Last year, thousands of voters, many registered in the city for 10 years and more, showed up to cast ballots only to find their names off the voting rolls. Untold numbers of other voters gave up in disgust, never voting.
Some precincts ran out of ballots, or had the wrong ones. Some persons, lacking identification, were allowed to vote. Others weren't. One case of voter fraud has been referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The Board of Elections and Ethics was unable to say how many people are registered to vote in the city.
The hearings, beginning at 1 p.m. today in the District Building council chambers, are an effort by the council's Committee on Government Operations to insure that the Sept. 14 Democratic primary is run differently.
"It's going to be close, very close," said former D.C. auditor Matthew Watson, hired by the Government Operations Committee as special counsel for the election investigation. He said that whatever changes the committee decides upon will take time to put into place. Some new legislation may be required.
"September is going to be a hotly contested election," Watson said, noting that while there are fewer ballot names and issues this year, some races, including the crowded mayoral contest, could be won by small margins.
By the end of May, primary candidates will begin circulating petitions to place their names on the ballot. The number of names required depends on what race the candidate enters and how many registered voters there are. But as of now, the city has not cleared up the registration mess.
City officials say there are supposed to be about 250,000 registered voters, of the estimated 400,000 persons eligible to vote.
The Council committee, which has invoked rarely used subpoena powers to insure that a variety of city government officials will appear at the hearings, is expected to reveal for the first time exactly how many people were left off the voting rolls and why.
Reports last year tended to blame computer problems, but officials have indicated that computers played only one role in the foul-ups. There have been other indications that staff problems within the Board of Elections and Ethics also contributed to the poorly run election.
Watson declined to discuss specifics of the committee's findings.
He said the committee is exploring several ideas, including legislation that would waive the city's requirement that voters register at least 30 days before an election. Instead, voters could register on election day if their names did not appear on the rolls.
Watson cautioned that "the great drawback is the potential for fraud," however, if candidates encouraged supporters to vote illegally at several different precincts.
Watson said the committee is considering legislation that would postpone a rule for several years that requires that persons who don't vote in any consecutive four-year period be stricken from the rolls. That would give the elections board a chance to concentrate on who is voting, rather than trying to track down who isn't.
Albert J. Beveridge III, chairman of the elections board, said this week he would propose that the city reregister all voters, a proposal that was first made before the election last year, but not acted on by the city. But Watson said time may be too short to re-register all voters. He said even a well-run re-registration would still have a small error rate that would just "create new problems." He said it could disenfranchise people already registered who do not get the word to re-register.
The council committee is only one of three separate probes into the city's election problems. Beveridge earlier this year appointed a five-member task force that is looking primarily at problems that occurred in the precincts, and is interviewing precinct workers on how to improve the city's methods of getting ballots and registration materials to the precincts. That committee is expected to report its findings in a couple of months.
The current D.C. auditor, Otis Troop, also is reviewing the elections problems for City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, Beveridge said.