The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, overriding the opinion of its own legal counsel, yesterday hastily approved a new procedure to allow people with no proof of registration to cast unchallenged ballots in the Nov. 2 general election by showing some identification and signing an affidavit.
The action, in a 2-0 vote with one member who opposes the procedure absent, came amid concern by some city officials that the procedure may not be legal. Election officials are eager to implement it to avoid the large number of disputed ballots that marred the Sept. 14 primary.
Board general counsel William H. Lewis said last Wednesday that the board lacks legal authority to do this, and yesterday D.C. City Council member William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), head of a committee that oversees elections matters, also said he thinks the procedure may be illegal.
Under the new procedure, a person not on the voter list and without a registration card may cast a regular ballot if he can present "substantial evidence" that convinces the precinct captain to a point of "reasonable certainty" that he or she is a registered voter living in that precinct.
David Splitt, acting executive director of the elections board, said that such evidence might be a driver's license, or a friend or spouse who can vouch for the voter.
To cast a ballot, such a voter also would have to sign an affidavit swearing he or she is a properly registered voter.
"I do not think we acted illegally," said Elections Board chairman Albert J. Beveridge III. "We are only trying to create a mechanism so that the electorate in this town can vote with the absolute minimum of confusion and inconvenience."
"It's not the type of thing where a person can walk in off the street, flash a driver's license and vote," said Splitt, who has been pushing the new measure. "The presumption should be in favor of the voter. This new procedure at the same time requires safeguards to protect the integrity of the election."
Under another new procedure approved yesterday, anyone presenting a voter registration card may vote a regular ballot, even if he or she is not on the voter list. Lewis and other city officials did not question the legality of this.
Yesterday Lewis sat silent, making no objection during the brief hearing that was scheduled for 11 a.m. and then switched to 9 a.m.
"It's not for me to agree or not," Lewis said of yesterday's decision in a telephone interview later. He said his opinion is "irrelevant now . . . . The decision is made, and if I have to defend it, I'll certainly do my best."
Beveridge said, "We attempted to respond to the concerns expressed by the general counsel" by adding some new language to the guidelines for the procedure. He said the language was "substantial evidence" and "reasonable certainty."
Asked why voters without cards and not listed on the rolls should cast regular instead of special ballots that could later be checked and discarded if the voters turned out not to be legitimate -- a procedure that Lewis had said would be legal -- Beveridge said:
"It's only a question of convenience . . . . I trust our voters."
In the Sept. 14 primary, 22,000 voters not listed on the registration rolls had to cast special ballots. Some 20,000 of those were later validated and counted.
Board member Virginia Moye, who voted with Beveridge for the new procedure said, "The laws can be interpreted almost any way you want . . . . Sometimes you have to use common sense."
Board member Jeannine Clark was absent. Beveridge said during the hearing that she was out of town but "would vote 'no' if she were present."
Spaulding yesterday said he asked for an opinion on the matter from the D.C. corporation counsel. An adverse opinion by the city's highest legal authority could affect yesterday's elections board action.
According to Spaulding, the procedure may amount to on-site voter registration. Under current law, registration must close 30 days before an election, and registration is already closed for the general election.
Former D.C. City Auditor Matthew Watson, who studied the election board's problems as a private consultant, said yesterday that the new procedure does amount to on-site registration.