"The government announced plans to suspend scheduled elections so that 'order can be restored to the system.'
"Following a meeting with his national security advisers, President Reagan told reporters that he was 'deeply disturbed by the suspension of democracy' but that no final decision had been made as to whether to dispatch American troops."
The first sentence is true. I had to make the second one up, because the government in question isn't that of some important Asian, African or Latin American country, but only that of the District of Columbia. Just a few years after the institution of quasi-home rule, after decades of protest against the federal government's refusal to grant us local elections, and in the midst of an effort to gain statehood and/or voting representation in Congress, the District is on its way to becoming the first American jurisdiction to cancel elections just to make life simpler for its politicians and bureaucrats.
The D.C. Council is considering legislation that would postpone next fall's elections to 1984. Residents would not be allowed to choose new school board members, select among candidates for more than 300 advisory neighborhood commission seats or decide initiatives such as one pending on Rhodes Tavern.
And what is the reason for this extraordinary plan, endorsed by, among others, Council Chairman David Clarke? Not civil disorder, not rampant corruption, not gross violation of civil rights, but simply the fact that the board of elections can't seem to get the paper work done in time.
I suppose it shouldn't surprise us. After all, this is the same District government that has happily ignored court orders; that proposes suspending a recently passed no-fault insurance law because it can't figure out how to enforce it; that passes "emergency" bills as if they were happy-birthday resolutions; and which, when faced with a real emergency, such as the recent blizzard, considers it a good job to have had its snow removal equipment clear an average of 5.6 miles of streets apiece over a period of several days.
With attitudes toward the law and efficiency such as these, it is small wonder that elections are reduced to just another bureaucratic problem that can best be handled by procrastination.
In my more paranoid moments, I perceive a touch of politics amid the incompetence. There is no doubt that the mayor and the council consider the school board and the ANCs a pain in the neck. From early in home rule, city politicians have been trying to weaken and sabotage both institutions. Mixing the nonpartisan school board and ANC elections in with the partisan races, as is being proposed, would help the mayor and council members gain control over these independent and politically undisciplined bodies. Another pending proposal, to enlarge the size of ANC single-member districts, would help make the neighborhood commissioners less responsive to their communities and more overworked, something some of the ward city council members wouldn't mind a bit.
But that's all icing. The big reason for postponing the elections is that it is the bureaucratically simplest way of getting around the manifest incompetence of the city government in administering election laws. Not only are the voter rolls inaccurate, but the legally required redistricting of the ANCs has not occurred as well. Hundreds of congressional districts have managed to fulfill this once-a-decade responsibility, but not the District.
The fact is, however, that the redistricting could still be done in time. And there is no evidence that the inaccuracies in the voter rolls, annoying as they may be, have led to any significant corruption or distortion of the public will. It's hard to manipulate a system that you don't understand.
The plan to postpone elections would, on the other hand, deeply corrupt our fledgling local democracy. If we once accept the idea that elections can be suspended or postponed for administrative convenience, we will weaken our defense against such actions being taken as a cover for political manipulation.
If we care about the home rule for which we fought so long, the 1983 elections must be held. If Marion Barry and Dave Clarke can't see to it, then the courts should.
After all, we can't just sit around hoping the Marines will come and save us.
The writer is editor of the D.C. Gazette.