The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C.’s vote-by-mail process backfired in the primaries. Let’s hope it gets it right by November.

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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Trevor M. Stanley is a lawyer.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) recently posted on social media, “Our power is in peace, in our voices, and in the ballot box.”

That’s a fine sentiment, but one that rings hollow after a disastrous primary that saw thousands of poor and elderly D.C. residents disenfranchised because of a hasty and poorly planned decision to move to a mostly vote-by-mail election.

Thousands of D.C. residents who requested an absentee ballot were never sent one. When voters called to complain about the missing absentee ballots, they were told to vote in person. By some estimates, as many as a third of all Election Day voters were forced to vote in person because they requested but never received a ballot. Many others couldn’t vote at all.

D.C. relied on the success of its absentee balloting process to compensate for a reduction from 144 to 20 in-person voting locations, a defensible decision given that many of the regular volunteers were concerned about spreading the rampaging virus. These reductions, however, resulted in long lines and longer wait times. In my two-hour wait to vote, I saw one woman who exercised her right to vote by curbside voting. That’s a good idea on paper, but the process took so long in practice that her car battery died, leaving her stranded. A few of us helped find someone to charge her battery. This is not how an election should be run.

For some people who couldn’t vote in person given their age, concern over the novel coronavirus or an inability to vote in person, D.C. allowed them to vote by email. That, too, is a great solution, until you consider that voting by email disenfranchises more than half of the residents of Wards 7 and 8. A recent study by the Urban Institute found that fewer than half of the residents in Wards 7 and 8 have broadband Internet at home. In some parts of Northeast D.C., the number is as low as 37 percent. Some Northwest neighborhoods are at 90 percent. But even if those 37 percent who subscribed to broadband service were sent an absentee ballot to vote by email, they still had to open the ballot on a computer, a hurdle for the 17 percent of D.C. residents who don’t have access to a computer at home.

The right to vote cannot stop at D.C.’s digital divide.

I have been the lead counsel in numerous recounts and cases securing the right to vote. I argued to count the vote of an unknown individual who cast a ballot that led to the control of the Virginia House of Delegates being decided by drawing a name out of a bowl. That case, in which a bipartisan and racially diverse three-judge panel decided to count that vote, left an indelible mark on me. The panel stated, “The right of a citizen to cast a free vote has been secured to us by the blood of patriots shed from Lexington and Concord to Selma, Alabama. The manifest injustice against which we must always guard is the chance that a single vote may not be counted.”

The right to vote cannot be curtailed because the D.C. government failed to send out thousands of ballots.

The June election resulted in manifest injustice because of mismanagement that reflected a lack of concern for poor and elderly members of our community. Considering the mostly peaceful protests aimed at combating systemic racism, D.C.’s failure on Election Day is all the more glaring.

D.C’s vote-by-mail process was a failure that will play out nationwide in November as the District looks to expand vote-by-mail and states hastily adopt a similar process, which could disenfranchise the people the process is intended to benefit.

D.C. has to get this process right by November. It owes it to every person who fought in the past, is fighting now and will fight in the future to secure the sacred right to vote.

Read more:

Letter to the editor: The D.C. Board of Elections’ epic fail

The Post’s View: D.C.’s Board of Elections needs to get it together for a smooth June primary

Colbert I. King: Because of covid-19, this election will play a critical role in D.C.’s future

The Post’s View: These are especially fraught times. So vote in your primaries.