WHILE WE'RE ALL waiting for ratification of the D.C. amendment (keep the faith, even if things do look a bit bleak), we raise for voter consideration some important proposals to change the way elections are held in this city. They would reduce the number of elections, save the city money and, based on the short but busy history of serious voting in the District, make the elections more representative.
Though the argument for more self-government remains as strong as ever, it has come to the attention of elections experts that the District is neither "voteless" nor "unaccustomed to going to the polls," as some people keep on saying. In fact, Washington votes too often for too little -- with at least seven elections every four years, and more when special elections have been held. One result is that odd-year elections for the school board -- which have an enormous bearing on the state of public education in Washington -- produce low turnouts, usually heavily influenced by Wards 3 and 4, where higher turnouts are traditional.
After a special six-month task-force study of city elections, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has come up with a package of proposed improvements, including switching the school board elections to even-numbered years, when elections are held for delegate to the House and for seats on the District council (and every four years, for mayor and council chairman). Though the separate school board elections seemed a good idea originally -- as a way to focus attention on them and to keep these non-partisan contests apart from the partisan decisions -- they haven't really worked that well. The turnouts and the interest level in general have been low, and the costs high.
Elections board chairman Albert J. Beveridge III, who has been advocating cost-cutting and efficiency measures since his appointment, says the proposed changes could save the city's taxpayers $300,000 to $350,000 over a four-year election cycle.While penny-pinching at the expense of the democratic process is misplaced, saving money while improving that process makes double sense. Similarly, it would seem to be no great loss if all those partisan-party offices were left off what often becomes a mini-book of ballots on election day.
There are still other proposals for a better permanent registration system that would reduce the number of challenged ballots, and for changes in the vast amounts of paper work required of the elections board. Council hearings on the entire legislative package are scheduled for July 10 -- which, for all who care about the implications of these changes, would be a perfect occasion for a nice, big voter turnout.