Elections in the District have been handicapped by faulty voting machines, inadequate polling staff, inaccessible polling stations and delays in vote tallying.
And yet it is unclear whether any of those problems will have been remedied by the time the District holds its next major election in six months.
These are the concerns held by D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie and a handful of other close observers of the city’s election process who say the D.C. Board of Elections appears to have made no clear progress toward fixing its long-standing problems ahead of the June primary contests or addressed how the board has managed millions of dollars in federal funds.
As of last week, a full month after board members testified before the D.C. Council that they were unaware of how much new voting machines would cost, the board still had not determined whether it can afford to purchase new ones or whether it will lease them.
The potential lengthiness of the city’s procurement process also raises the question of whether the board will have enough time to test the machines and train election workers, if it does acquire new ones.
McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who has called on elections officials and experts to testify before the council’s judiciary committee, says he is deeply concerned.
“I think that the public’s confidence in the board’s ability to administer an election will depend on how the board administers the 2016 primary in general,” he said.
Last month, McDuffie appeared to grow exasperated during a Judiciary Committee hearing when board members appeared unable to provide answers to basic questions about the state of the board’s finances.
Acting board chairwoman Deborah Nichols said she had only recently become aware that the office is in possession of $4.9 million in federal funds, which could be used to purchase new voting machines — despite years of complaints from board members that they lacked the funds to do so.
“We did, or at least I thought we needed funding,” Nichols said during the Judiciary Committee hearing. “It wasn’t until six to eight months ago that I really found out the magnitude of what we had.”
Said McDuffie: “You are the folks charged with administering the elections, and the issue you presented [in the past] was the equipment was outdated, and you also presented a lack of funding. Today you have the funding. Who was supposed to know the funding exists, if it’s not you all?”
U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) records show that the D.C. Board of Elections has received $18 million in federal funds since 2003 to use toward purchasing modern equipment and training election workers, among other things.
But an EAC audit of the board’s expenditures from 2003 to 2013 also found that it “did not appropriately categorize expenditures as Federal grant expenditures”; that its accounting records did not support the financial reports that it submitted; that its equipment management was inadequate; and that it expended around $300,000 for purposes that were not allowed for that federal funding.
As of the end of September 2014, the Board of Elections had a balance of about $11 million, according to the EAC’s latest nationwide fiscal report — and contrary to what the board told the D.C. Council.
The Board of Elections had also reported roughly $7 million in expenditures to the federal government, according to EAC records.
Bryan Whitener, a spokesman for the EAC, said that as of the end of September 2014, the D.C. Board of Elections had roughly $3 million in unspent federal funds.
It was not immediately clear what accounted for the discrepancy between the $11 million, $3 million and $4.9 million amounts that the EAC report, the EAC spokesman and the Board of Election reported as being the board’s most recent balance.
Whitener said he believed the report may have been amended. The most recent fiscal report on the EAC’s website shows a balance of about $11 million.
Neither former board director Clifford Tatum nor the Board of Elections responded to requests to explain the financial reporting. McDuffie said his office also is examining the issue.
Dorothy Brizill, an activist and journalist who has monitored elections and regularly attended board meetings for years, first drew attention to the board’s faulty financial reporting during a council hearing last month.
She said that she is now more concerned about the board’s ability to administer the upcoming primaries than she has ever been.
“If you look at the budgets that were submitted by the Board of Elections to the council, you will never ever see an indication that there was federal grant money available to the Board of Elections,” she said. “Now it turns out they were given money from the federal government for new voting machines. . . . Why weren’t they ever acquired?”
There are other outstanding problems.
According to the D.C. Auditor’s Office, more than 64 percent of the precincts it inspected during the District’s last major election, in November 2014, experienced technical difficulties.
More than a quarter of the area’s voting precincts also didn’t have the minimum number of election workers on Election Day, largely because they didn’t show up to the job.
And more than 40 percent of the precincts were at least partly inaccessible to disabled voters.
Board members complained that D.C. Public Schools requirements at certain precincts hindered access for people with disabilities. And yet, the board has yet to meet with school officials to try to resolve the issue. (McDuffie’s office recently scheduled a conference call between the two.)
While the board has said it is currently “exploring” the possibility of relocating several precincts to be in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, it is presently “slated to use the same 143 polling locations that were used in the 2014 November General Election,” Nichols said at the hearing last month.
Kristina Majewski, a legal expert on disability rights, told the council that her organization saw little improvement in disabled access during the smaller 2015 special election.
It is also unclear whether the Board has taken any new steps to guarantee a larger pool of election workers this year.
“We’re going to make sure we do everything possible to make sure every polling location is adequately staffed,” board spokeswoman Margarita Mikhaylova said earlier this month.
Mikhaylova also said that the board’s lack of permanent leadership would have no impact on its ability to execute an election.
“There is no concern here within the agency as to whether or not we’ll be prepared, because we’ll be prepared,” she said.