IN FIGHTING a challenge aimed at kicking him off the ballot in the District’s upcoming special election, at-large D.C. Council hopeful Paul Zukerberg did more than preserve his candidacy. He focused needed attention on how the District manages its elections. His claims, coinciding with a new report ranking D.C.’s conduct of elections among the worst in the nation, should spur officials to provide the resources the elections office needs to fulfill its critical responsbilities.
Mr. Zukerberg (D), one of seven candidates in the April 23 special election to fill the seat vacated after Phil Mendelson (D) was elected council chairman, claims that faulty data, caused by the failure of elections officials to update addresses for many voters, nearly got him tossed from the ballot. He hired a mailing services investigator to help him check the city’s voter rolls against the Postal Service’s change-of-address database to uncover inaccuracies in election records. He said election officials are required by law to periodically do the same comparison. A spokesman for the board of elections disputed Mr. Zukerberg’s claims as “inaccurate” and maintained that — despite admittedly confusing language in the city codes — the board is under no obligation to rely solely on the postal database because it is not always complete or reliable (an assessment confirmed to us by others knowledgeable about elections).
The essential question posed by Mr. Zukerberg’s case is whether enough is being done to maintain an accurate database that not only affects the collection of signatures needed to get on the ballot but also determines who votes on Election Day. Election officials recently acknowledged to the council a delay in the biennial process of sending postcards to people who didn’t vote in November, to check whether they had moved. Also hampering operations is the elections office’s history of being chronically understaffed, underfunded and saddled with outdated technology.
All those factors likely played a role in the District’s abysmal rankings by the Pew Charitable Trusts in its recently released Elections Performance Index. In 2008, D.C. was just one percentage point higher than last-place Mississippi. In 2012, only voters in Florida waited longer to cast a ballot than did D.C. residents. The Pew report cited unusually high numbers of provisional ballots being handed out, a practice that not only results in uncertainty for voters about whether their votes are counted but also places another burden on already-stressed elections officials. Among Pew’s suggested reforms: allowing online registration, greater coordination with adjoining states and greater use of available databases, including the change-of-address database and Social Security and motor vehicle information.
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who recently assumed oversight of the board of elections, seems to be asking the right questions and, encouragingly, has promised to provide the tools needed. A good place to start might be to give the board the funds needed to conduct the upcoming election; it requested $1,046,800 but has received $832,000.
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