The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. election board prints upside-down flag on voter guide

Updated 6 p.m.

Elections officials changed their account late Thursday of how an upside-down flag came to be printed on the front of the official D.C. voter guide sent to hundreds of thousands of city households.

On Thursday morning, the D.C. Board of Elections said the upside-down flag was part of a conscious ploy to generate voter interest in the election. But at around the same time, the board’s executive director told the D.C. Council that the graphic was an “error.”

A staff member to D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) inquired about the upside-down flag late Wednesday. On Thursday morning, Executive Director Clifford Tatum replied in an e-mail: “No, this is an error; checked with printer, not enough paper in stock or time to redo cover… we will message to voters that content is correct- graphic is wrong.”

In a interview Thursday evening, Tatum said that the inverted flag was placed on the cover by a member of the board’s “design team,” who had stylized the logo in various ways during previous elections. “We have done different things with the flag in the past,” he said. “Her idea was the bars would be above the stars.”

Tatum said he did not see the cover before it was sent to the printer. When he saw the finished product, he said he raised concerns about the upside-down flag, but by that point the books had already been printed and packaged — and so began the effort to couch the flag as a gimmick.

“I read the content,” Tatum said. “I can’t say I paid attention to the cover. From cover to cover, it’s perfect. Would I have done something different with the bars and stars, certainly.”

McDuffie is not pleased by the board’s latest snafu. “My impression is that this was not an intentional act, and it was an error,” he said Thursday. “And if it was intentional, then it was ridiculous that anyone would sanction that.”

He laid the blame at Tatum’s feet: “You’ve got an executive director who needs to be held accountable for mistake after mistake in election after election. We have had problems through his tenure, and at some point, the buck needs to stop.”

Tatum declined to comment on McDuffie’s statements.

Original item:

The 305,164 copies of the official D.C. voter guide started landing in mailboxes Wednesday ahead of the Nov. 4 general election. And the guide, issued by the D.C. Board of Elections, quickly turned into something of a social-media phenomenon — quite a feat for a publication full of sample ballots and voting instructions.

The surfeit of useful information wasn’t what caught the public’s attention, however.

Board spokeswoman Denise Tolliver said the upside-down flag was not, in fact, a mistake.

Rather, Tolliver said, it was an effort to engage voters months after primary elections that saw record-low turnout. The idea, she said, was to put the voter guide on the board’s Web site with the inverted flag, prompt viewers to find the mistake, and “see how many clicks we can get.”

There is no acknowledgment of the flag in the printed guide, and as of 10 a.m. Thursday, the online version had still not been posted.

The flag gag comes as the board is dealing with public dismay over the slow counting of ballots after the April 1 primaries. Last month, board executive director Clifford Tatum said he could not guarantee that all the glitches have been ironed out and declined to promise when vote-counting would wrap up on election night.

So why futz with something as seemingly straightforward as the voter guide?

“It’s something we wanted to do to kind of engage people,” said Tolliver, who said the gimmick was “kind of a collective thing” but was ultimately approved by Tatum. “The turnout was just so low in April.”

“People are responding, aren’t they?” she added. “They’re paying attention. It’s working!”