At the council hearing, lawmakers said they did not want a repeat of the problem-plagued June primary, in which many voters did not receive mailed ballots, few turned out to vote early and there were hours-long lines on Election Day.
“I have to say, I think our voters’ confidence was shaken a bit with the June 2 primary,” said Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large).
Election officials said they are testing a new system to allow voters to register online, have expanded payments to a company that will advertise early and mail-in voting options, and expect mailed ballots to begin going out to all D.C. voters by the end of this month.
“The Board of Elections is laser-focused on making sure we have a safe and effective voting experience,” Bennett said. “The real message is: Vote early, use your mail-in ballot.”
The elections board’s executive director, Alice Miller, told the council that if a D.C. resident doesn’t receive a ballot by Oct. 21, they should plan to vote in person. “We do know that there may be problems with the mail and we’re not going to deny that,” she said. “Just because we put a ballot in the mail or mail something, it may not get there.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has asked her staff to assist the elections board whenever possible, including helping to install ballot drop boxes and provide staffing for polling places.
The board has resisted Bowser’s request to open all 144 traditional polling places on Election Day, citing pandemic safety concerns.
Thirty-two early-voting sites will be available beginning Oct. 27, and more than 90 locations will be open on Election Day, Nov. 3. The board expects registered voters to start receiving ballots by the end of the first week in of October and will be installing 55 secure drop boxes across the city where voters can deliver those ballots in person.
But the mayor expressed concerns about how voters will adapt to the new options. At the council hearing, lawmakers said they were especially concerned about how senior citizen voters would adjust.
“We know a transformation to a mail-in voting system or to early voting happens over many cycles,” Bowser said Wednesday. “It doesn’t happen overnight. . . . We also have to be prepared if [voters] say, ‘No thank you, I don’t want option A or B; I want to go to my voting precinct.’ ”
Bennett called that notion unrealistic, saying that many traditional precincts, like church buildings, are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The challenges have to do with being safe — some of the former precincts are too small for social distancing,” Bennett said. “We’re very confident that in this environment we’re providing the very best opportunity for every citizen to vote.”
The board is also testing out “signature capture technology” that allows voters to sign and submit voter registrations via a smartphone through the board’s website. It is still undergoing testing, and may need some adjustments, officials said. The technology will replace the now-shuttered Vote4DC app, which had a high failure rate.
Asked about poll workers, Bennett said D.C. will need about 4,000 of them for a smooth election. He said more than 1,500 people have been trained already while 3,500 have applied in total — and that Bowser had promised to make more than 2,000 D.C. government workers available.
“Young people have really answered the call to be poll workers,” Bennett said. “We want to make sure we continue that training process, and we want to make sure people continue to apply.”
Miller said that when a person submits a mail-in ballot, its bar code will be scanned, meaning that the same person cannot then cast a ballot in person. Conversely, as soon as someone votes in person, the Board of Elections won’t open any mail-in ballot that the person submits.
The council passed legislation this summer allowing all D.C. residents who are incarcerated to vote. But Miller said the elections board is struggling to get voter registration materials to prisoners, most of whom are housed in 107 federal facilities across the country.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons would not provide a list of the names of the D.C. residents imprisoned in those facilities unless the list was for a law enforcement purpose, Miller said. The board has worked with numerous organizations to try to make voting materials available to prisoners.
At Capital One Arena, Beal made a public appeal to all D.C. residents to register and vote in the election.
In a moment of candor, the 27-year-old professional athlete acknowledged that this fall would mark his first time casting a ballot.
“I was kind of ignorant. Being naive — ‘Who cares? How many people in the world? Okay, my vote won’t count’ — that’s kind of ignorant thinking, and I totally migrated from that,” Beal said. “I clearly took that for granted for eight to 10 years.”
Beal, who is Black, is part of a group of National Basketball Association players engaging in social activism this summer and urging people to participate in the election.
He said he changed his mind about the importance of voting after discussions with his family, including his grandparents, who taught him what they went through to secure the right to vote. This fall, he has plans to vote by mail.
“There should be no excuse why your voice shouldn’t be heard,” Beal said.