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Expanding Democracy: Making Black and Brown Voters Matter

As we seize this historic opportunity to highlight and address systemic racism, one important goal should be to strengthen our democracy — to ensure that Black and brown voters matter.

When we work to ensure equitable access to voting, we will elect leaders who truly reflect our community’s priorities, making it more likely DC will take bold steps to dismantle systemic racism.

The hours-long lines at DC’s polling places during the June 2 primary and innumerable unfulfilled requests for absentee ballots were powerful reminders that DC residents are eager to participate in elections.  It is clear, however, that we have major problems.

The DC Board of Elections (BOE) decision to mail ballots to all registered voters in the November, 2020 general election is a significant first step — and it should be a permanent change. Across the nation, all-mail ballot systems have increased voter participation. However, we need to take additional action to make sure that Black and brown residents can register to vote, that all registered voters get ballots and can return them easily, and that all ballots are counted. 

Democracy is not easy. As a community we should work with the BOE to make maximum participation a reality in the November 2020 election and in every future election.

Here are some key steps DC should take, on a permanent basis, to make it easier for residents to register for and participate in elections:

Voter Registration

DC allows residents to register online and to register on Election Day at polling centers. Let’s make it even easier:

  • Allow Filing to Be Completely Online: Currently, people who do not have a signature on file with the DC Department of Motor Vehicles must print a voter registration application, sign it and email or mail it back. This means that people in this situation who do not have printers are unable to register online. The Board of Elections should allow applicants to fill out voter registration applications entirely online, and applicants should be able to submit a photo of their signature, or use any other signature on file with the DC government.
  • Allow Registration as Close to Election Day as Possible: Currently, people registering online must do so 21 days in advance of an election, while people registering in person can do so during early voting and on the day of the election. The District should allow people to register online as close to the election as possible while accepting mailed registration forms up to seven days before Election Day.
  • Reach Out to Inactive Voters:  Black and brown residents are more likely to move frequently due to unstable housing, which makes keeping voter registration current more difficult for these populations. DC should send a letter to all inactive voters, using mail that will be forwarded if they have moved, to ensure that people who have been active voters previously (but not recently) stay on the rolls with updated information.

Outreach to Jails and Shelters: DC should reach out with voter registration drives to the DC Jail, to homeless shelters, and to other institutional residential settings. DC should also work with federal officials to enable DC residents in Bureau of Prisons facilities to help them register.

Vote By Mail

The BOE commitment to mail a ballot to all registered voters is an important step. Let’s work to ensure the process is effective.

  • Plan for People Who Do Not Get a Ballot:  There will be voters who don’t get a ballot for one reason or another. The Board of Elections should make additional ballots available in several ways:
    • Set up vote centers in accessible locations where people without a mailing address can update their registrations and pick up a Vote By Mail (VBM) ballot, and where voters who have not received their ballots a few days before Election Day may get a replacement ballot. These voting centers should be accessible to public housing developments, senior housing, nursing homes, and other multi-unit facilities.
    • If the BOE has the capacity, election administrators or poll workers should visit these facilities after ballots have been mailed to provide VBM ballots to residents who did not receive one. 
    • Allow people who are unable to leave their homes to designate a person or community organization to pick up a VBM ballot for them from a voting center.
    • Allow people to request ballots online.
  • Support the Right to Vote for Incarcerated Residents: The BOE should ensure the DC jail is stocked with voter registration and VBM request forms. The BOE should continue to make the DC Jail a polling location for detained residents, even if the BOE operates a smaller number of polling places due to COVID.
  • Make it Easy to Submit a Completed Ballot: The BOE plans to set up drop boxes throughout DC, in addition to allowing voters to mail their ballots. It will be important to ensure that there are enough drop boxes throughout the city, and that there are plenty in communities with the lowest voter turnout. 
  • Allow Provisional Ballots: The BOE should send a provisional VBM ballot to any voter who requests a mail ballot but is not on the voter registration rolls. The ballot should collect all the information needed to register to vote, and if the voter’s eligibility is confirmed, they should be added to the rolls and their provisional ballot should be counted.
  • Make it Easy for Voters to “Cure” Any Ballot Signature Errors: The BOE should create a uniform and accessible process for signature “curing.” This is relevant for voters who forget to sign their ballots and in cases when election officials believe a voter’s signature does not match the signature on file closely enough. The BOE should be required to provide a reason for every rejected ballot. Voters must be able to cure their ballot remotely.
  • Count Ballots Up to 10 Days After the Election: Given potential delays in mail delivery, the District should wait long enough to ensure all VBM ballots are received.
  • Track Rejected Ballots: The BOE should maintain a record of VBM ballots that were initially rejected, including how voters were contacted, how they were offered the opportunity to cure their ballot, and whether the ballot was eventually corrected. This will allow for audits and accountability for race-based or other disparities in ballot rejection.
Voter Education

The BOE must immediately engage in significant voter education efforts, with increasing efforts through Election Day in November, as well as registration efforts targeted to communities with the highest number of unregistered voters. Voter education could include hiring local artists to make voting murals or signs; putting signs up around bus stops, libraries, shelters, and carry-outs; hiring a go-go band to ride around key neighborhoods and promote the election; canvassing Black and brown communities with ability to register people on the spot; and mobile voter registration drives.

The District could make voter education a task for some participants in the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program. 

Ranked Choice Voting

The way we vote violates our values of fairness, freedom, meaningful representation, and racial equity. The solution is called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). 

Our current election system is often devoid of productive dialogue. Especially when a race has numerous candidates, it is overwhelming to navigate the inside baseball and strategic voting required to make change. Newcomers, outsiders, and people from low-income communities who consider running for office often don’t stand a fighting chance of getting elected. Fears of “splitting the vote” wastes so much of our political energy. 

With RCV, voters have two options: 1) to vote for one candidate or 2) to rank their preferred candidates. When votes are counted, if someone has over 50% of first-choice votes, they win and the election is over. If there is no majority winner after counting first-choice votes, the election is decided by an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as their top choice will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes. Because winners have to win a real majority of votes, there are no more spoiler candidates. 

With RCV, people can vote their values and independently assess candidates based on who they think is best for the job. This means voters don’t have to vote for the “lesser of the evils.” Ranking the vote empowers voters to vote for who they really want as opposed to who they think is the most electable, well-connected, or well-resourced. 

RCV also increases diversity among our elected officials. A recent study demonstrated that RCV led to an increase in the percentage of candidates of color running for office and the probability of them winning their race. Studies also show no adverse effects on voter turnout. People understand and appreciate the option to rank their preferences: a natural way of increasing choice in our politics. More choice, more voice, more freedom.

Along with public financing, RCV can transform the culture of elections and power while making democracy more functional. A more diverse group of people can run successful campaigns. Candidates are incentivized to highlight their shared beliefs and common ground. Elections become less driven by ego and more focused on balance, thoughtfulness, building coalitions, and strengthening communities. 

Other Steps to Strengthen Democracy

Beyond these steps, the Council can go further to expand the universe of residents who can vote, particularly among Black and brown residents.

  • Strengthen Automatic Voter Registration: The District offers automatic voter registration at the DMV, but we should expand this to other points of contact. Anytime someone is interacting with a government agency, they should be given an opportunity to register to vote or update their information. This would help keep the voter rolls up to date making it easier for people who experience unstable housing to vote more easily.
  • Vote 16: The District should lower the voting age to 16, since research shows that starting the habit of voting at age 16 works better to engage residents as lifelong voters than waiting until 18.  It also creates potential for more meaningful civic education in DC high schools.
  • Invest in the Fight for Statehood: The ultimate issue of voting rights in the District is the fight for statehood. The District should continue to invest in educational efforts to support this fight, which has made great progress in recent years.

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