The indifference of largely African American voters east of the Anacostia River contrasts with previous decades, when the same voters formed a vocal constituency and a cornerstone in the political coalitions of leaders such as former mayor Marion Barry Jr.
Some community leaders and elected officials say the decline signals the extent of alienation and resignation among those untouched by Washington’s heralded revival.
“There is a sense of hopelessness in the political process,” said Stuart Anderson, a political operative who managed the successful 2016 campaign of D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8). “I think that it’s been mounting, and it’s just coming to a culmination where we’re seeing it a little clearer.”
Some also worry that as the voices of Southeast Washington residents grow more faint in debates about local government, politicians could feel less urgency in tackling crime, joblessness, gentrification and other problems that weigh more heavily on those who live east of the river.
“The danger, of course, is that those who get elected don’t feel any extraordinary commitment to the folks who live in that area of the city,” said former mayor and current D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).
In Ward 7, which also lies east of the river and suffers from many of the same problems seen in neighboring Ward 8, turnout was just under 12 percent last week, compared with 22 percent in the affluent neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park.
Gray said he visited all of his ward’s polling places on Election Day and that about half were empty when he showed up. “We’re talking about a quarter of the population of the District of Columbia — 150,000 people — that don’t feel connected to the city,” Gray said.
As in other large U.S. cities, turnout in the District’s local elections has been dropping for decades. Citywide turnout in last week’s primary was 18 percent, compared with 27 percent in 2014 and 37 percent in 2010. Many attributed voters’ apathy in the most recent election, at least in part, to the lack of a serious challenger to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
Even accounting for those trends, however, voter participation in Southeast Washington has dropped further and faster than elsewhere in the District. Combined turnout in Wards 7 and 8 fell 71 percent in the last eight years, compared with 53 percent citywide.
In 1994, the last year Barry was on the ballot for mayor, Ward 8 turnout in the primary election was 45 percent. Even in the 2002 primary, when former mayor Anthony A. Williams — a Barry antagonist without a strong base of support east of the river — was running for reelection as an overwhelming favorite, the ward’s turnout was 24 percent.
Declining turnout in liberal cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — as well as the District — has various causes, said Michael McDonald, a political-science professor at the University of Florida who studies American elections.
Among them are registration figures that may be inflated because of federal restrictions on purging voter rolls and a lack of interest in primary and municipal elections in cities dominated by Democrats.
Less easy to explain, McDonald said, is the indifference of voters in troubled neighborhoods, who have ample reason to challenge the status quo.
“Is it because it’s not the right candidates who are coming forward to articulate that message to appeal to these voters?” he said. “Or is it that they’ve become so alienated from the whole process that they throw up their hands and go on with their lives?”
By important demographic measures, Southeast Washington is a photographic negative of the prosperity that has transformed much of the District.
There have been 38 murders in Ward 8 so far this year, a 65 percent increase over the same period in 2017. Unemployment in December was nearly 12.8 percent, compared with 5.4 percent citywide. Nearly half of Ward 8 children lived in poverty in 2016, compared with less than 3 percent of children across the city in Ward 3, according to figures compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Combined with the eastward march of gentrification through a city that has always struggled with combustible divisions of race and class, the social problems that linger in Southeast Washington have led to widespread cynicism, particularly among younger residents, said Linda Softli of the D.C. chapter of the League of Women Voters.
“I just could not believe it. They’re very disillusioned, because they do not see any future for themselves here,” said Softli, who said she has tried, with little success, to register voters at community events and churches in Southeast Washington. “Most of them say, ‘Vote for what? It’s not going to do us any good. Nobody cares about us.’ ”
Leaving the Congress Heights Metro stop on a recent weekday, Ricardo Anthony said that Southeast Washington needs more affordable housing and that he hopes the planned construction of a practice facility for the Washington Wizards on the old campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital could spur economic development in Ward 8.
But Anthony, a 36-year-old registered voter, said he couldn’t remember the last time he cast a ballot in a mayoral election.
“We are the people, but our voice don’t really count,” he said. “We vote people in, and they do what they want to do.”
In Anacostia, Debra McIntosh said she was sick on the day of the election but could not say for certain she would have gone to the poll had she been healthy.
The 54-year-old, who cleans a nursing home, said she is fed up with a lack of jobs and youth programs in Southeast Washington, and has resigned herself to seeing men and women sleeping on the benches where she waits for her bus. She said she worries that rising rents in the District will force her to move to Maryland.
“It’s, like, a hopeless cause,” McIntosh said. “Why go out and vote when nothing changes?”
White, the Ward 8 council member, declined to comment.
Some worry that voter apathy could breed a cycle of disenfranchisement in Wards 7 and 8 as the candidates turn to other parts of the city to build winning coalitions and, in turn, pay less attention to the issues that voters in Southeast Washington care about.
The results of recent elections show that politicians have become less reliant on votes there to win citywide office. Bowser drew just 7,322 votes from Wards 7 and 8 last week, compared with Gray’s 25,020 votes from those wards in his winning 2010 mayoral primary and 12,526 for former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in 2006.
Three of the four at-large D.C. Council members — Elissa Silverman, Robert C. White Jr. and David Grosso — also drew disproportionately small portions of their winning coalitions from Wards 7 and 8 compared with their predecessors.
When he unseated former D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange in 2016, White drew 13 percent of his votes from Wards 7 and 8. Orange received 43 percent of his support from those wards in his last successful primary campaign, in 2012.
White said that he thinks lower-income voters have effectively opted out of a government they don’t believe is working on their behalf.
The District has adopted measures over the last several years aimed at giving a boost to those left behind during its economic boom, including $100 million per year to create or preserve affordable housing, the redevelopment of the shelter system for homeless families and a paid parental-leave policy that is among the country’s most generous.
But White said that more needs to be done and that the city’s initiatives for giving a hand to its have-nots must be articulated in a clear vision that voters can understand.
“For many people, the path and trajectory that we have been on has not been helping,” White said. “I think that unless and until people see sort of foundational shifts, they are not going to reengage with the government.”