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D.C.’s poorest wards won’t have voting ‘supercenters,’ despite long lines in primary

People wait in line to vote in the primary election at Columbia Heights Community Center on June 2.
People wait in line to vote in the primary election at Columbia Heights Community Center on June 2. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Washington plans to open five voting “supercenters” across the city to safely process large numbers of voters in the upcoming election. But none will be in Wards 7 and 8, which saw some of the worst lines during the June primary and where many people have expressed concerns about mailed ballots because of persistent postal delays.

Elections officials are touting large-scale voting centers at Capital One Arena, Nationals Park, the Omni Shoreham Hotel, Dock 5 at Union Market and the University of the District of Columbia as indicators of how they are preparing for record turnout and coronavirus social distancing restrictions in November.

They said they tried but were unable to find a suitable location east of the Anacostia River, which has few large venues and includes most of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods.

Instead, the city will provide additional ballot dropboxes and voting sites in Wards 7 and 8, both for early voting and on Election Day.

“We really did try to accommodate,” said D. Michael Bennett, who chairs the D.C. Elections Board. “It’s hard because you don’t want to slight any other place, any part of the city.”

Bennett said that one of the board’s first priorities after the tumultuous primary was to make the city-owned Entertainment and Sports Arena, in Ward 8, a voting supercenter.

Home to the Washington Mystics, the 4,200-seat arena cost nearly $70 million and was praised as a key investment into the Congress Heights neighborhood when it opened in 2018. But after several discussions in June, Events DC, which operates the arena and several other Washington venues, indicated it would not be available.

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Gregory A. O’Dell, president and chief executive officer of Events DC, said he is considering using the space for other purposes around the time of the election — although he declined to say for what.

Compared to Capital One Arena, which will host voters in its main concourse area, he said the Entertainment and Sports facility is smaller and might have trouble fitting large numbers of voters in the building’s biggest open floor space — the court itself.

“We are still having some discussions with folks about programming that would happen around November,” O’Dell said. “And when you look at the arena, it’s not the easiest place to get people in or out.”

During the primary, voters in Wards 7 and 8 largely turned out in person, according to Bennett, requesting fewer mailed ballots than any other part of the city.

Technical problems with mailing ballots, and a significantly reduced number of voting centers during the primary because of the pandemic, spurred long lines across the city, leaving some voters disenfranchised.

For the general election, D.C. plans to mail every registered voter a ballot in late September. That change has done little to quell concerns in Wards 7 and 8, community leaders say, as residents fear the ballots may not reach their mailboxes.

“This is a community of individuals that, in large part, we’re getting feedback that they don’t trust the mail process. They would prefer to show up and vote,” said D.C. Elections Board Director Alice Miller.

Of the 32 vote centers that will open for early voting Oct. 27, nine are in Wards 7 and 8. And nearly 37 percent of the 95 vote centers on Election Day will be in those wards. Ward 8 also has nine ballot drop box locations, the most in the city, followed closely by Ward 7, which has eight.

Ari Theresa, a lawyer who sued the election boards over changes in voting procedures for the primary, said communities east of the Anacostia River should also have a voter supercenter.

“If they are going to open them across the city and make it easier to vote in certain places, they should do everything within their control to do the same over here,” Theresa said. “There’s a center, and a lot of money went toward building it, and I think the public should have use of it, and there’s no better time. It just seems odd to me that that’s what is happening and it’s unfortunate.”

But he added that the most important thing for voters is for D.C. to clearly communicate how best to vote amid concerns about the mail and the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“My main concern is that things are changing, and they have not reached out to people adequately,” said Theresa. “Not everybody is on social media. Not everybody is electronically savvy. We are talking about a high-poverty area where not everybody is going to be aware of the changes that are occurring in terms of where to vote and how to vote.”

D.C. elections board bracing for ‘record-shattering’ turnout, aiming to avoid repeat of primary fiasco

Yvette M. Alexander, who used to represent Ward 7 as a city council member, is more skeptical of voting supercenters. She said voters from her part of the city, particularly the elderly, prefer to cast ballots at their normal polling place. Alexander said the board should keep all polling places east of the Anacostia River open while continuing to promote vote-by-mail and other options to reduce lines.

“If nothing else, because we have no supercenters in our wards, at least make those considerations for Wards 7 and 8 east of the river, to have more of our polls open,” she said.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has also asked the elections board, which is independent, to open all traditional polling sites. But the board says it cannot do so, because of closures and concerns related to the pandemic.

Inside the super vote center at Capital One Arena in Ward 2, the main concourse will be fitted with 40 voting booths — 20 digital and 20 paper. After voters cast ballots, they will leave from the opposite side of the arena to maintain social distancing.

Miller, the board director, said elections officials’ search in Wards 7 and 8 didn’t end with the Entertainment and Sports Arena. She said they scoured the area for other suitable locations fulfilling the size and additional criteria needed for a super vote center, but came up short.

“It wasn’t just the arena — the reality is there aren’t a lot of venues that can accommodate the spacing that we’re trying to look for east of the river,” Miller said. “That’s a bigger issue.”