Washington lawyer William Mayo Lee always has been conscientious about voting. In fact, he has given the D.C. elections board no fewer than six registration forms in the past four years. But he learned that this was not enough when, like thousands of other would-be voters, he found his name missing from the city's voter rolls last month.
By the board's own admission, Lee's four-year struggle to become properly registered is not an isolated case. And his feelings seem typical of the frustration expressed by many city residents who in recent days have bombarded the elections office with mailed, telephoned and personally delivered complaints.
"I'm pretty mad about all this," says Lee, who practices administrative law at the U.S. Department of Energy. "I think it's outrageous. Those turkeys [in public office] control every aspect of our lives. The only control we have over them is voting them out of office, and I am being denied that right."
Tracing Lee's troubles points up several of the longstanding human and procedural problems that elections officials are still working to correct.
According to the board's records, Lee has been a registered voter in Washington since 1977, when he switched his registration from Arkansas, where he previously had lived and voted. Lee voted without incident until 1979, when he notified the board that he had moved to his current address in the 1700 block of 19th St. NW.
"At this point, the system began to fail Mr. Lee," said David A. Splitt, the board's acting executive director, who took over last Thursday after the previous director resigned in frustration.
Lee filled out a registration form requesting a change of address, and elections workers wrote up a new registration card for him, listing him corrrectly at his new address. But when they sent the card to the board's data processing division, the employes then working there incorrectly entered his address onto a computer tape as a number a block away from where he lives.
When he voted in 1979, 1980 and 1981, he had to cast special challenged ballots because the address on his personal identification was different from the one on the computerized voter list at his precinct.
"Each time I voted, I would fill out a card requesting reregistration at my correct address," he said. But nothing ever happened.
Splitt says it is possible the three reregistration forms that Lee filled out at his precinct never got to the elections board office. Or, Splitt said, elections workers may have received Lee's request for an address change and then, because his card had been filled out properly to begin with, found that the address he requested already was correctly listed in their card file.
"They didn't know the listing on the computer printout did not match the address on his card," Splitt said, adding that apparently the card and the computer list never were compared.
When Lee sought to vote in the Sept. 14 primary, his name didn't appear on the list of registered voters. He cast a special challenged ballot and, the day after the primary, filled out a fifth registration form to get the problem with his address straightened out.
About two weeks later he was informed, along with at least 5,000 other citizens who cast challenged ballots, that his vote would be disqualified because elections officals could find no record of him in their card file.
Lee appealed that decision. Splitt said this weekend that his vote will, in fact, be counted.
Elections officals say they erred in disqualifying about 500 of those 5,000 voters and that every day they are finding more people who were wrongly disqualified. The board still has scheduled no date for certifying the election, and officials this weekend could not estimate when they would finish rechecking the registrations of disqualified voters.
Splitt says he really doesn't know why Lee's name was dropped from the computerized lists, but speculated that it may have been among the estimated 10,000 names that were deleted accidentally when elections officials switched from one computer system to another shortly before the primary.
Although Lee's name was not on the computerized precinct listing, the elections board had his original card on file. So why was his vote disqualified?
Splitt explained that a worker responsible for qualifying the challenged ballots evidently had searched for Lee's card in the files, but could not find it. It was missing because another employe, simultaneously working on the address changes that voters had requested after the primary, had removed Lee's original card from the file so the change could be made.
This, says Splitt, "caused the appearance that his card was missing, when in actuality, it was just somewhere else."
Splitt said that, in every step, the elections workers followed established procedures, but that previously those procedures did not include enough checks and safeguards to prevent cases such as Lee's. That is why, he said, it was possible for Lee's address to remain wrong on the computer list for three years. Apparently no one ever double-checked the work that was entered onto the computer.
Splitt said that the board's former director, Teddy Filosofos, before he resigned, began using a different computer system and changed some of the procedures for entering voter information into the computer. Both of these steps, Splitt said, should reduce the margin for error on the computerized voter rolls.
As for Lee, Splitt promised: "I will put his name into the system myself. There's no way he's not going to be there" for the November 2 general election.
"We'll see," Lee said, wearily. "I've heard that before, though never from the boss."