“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” Joan Didion wrote in her 1967 essay, “Goodbye to All That.” She’s right, of course.
It may be harder still, however, to see the beginning of the end, which is what I perceive DC’s growing reliance on mail-in voting ultimately will mean for developing and maintaining a robust culture of civic engagement. The active involvement of citizens in their government and in decisions made by elected officials is, in my view, critical to a muscular democracy at the local and national levels that can effectively stave off assaults like those perpetrated by a Donald Trump-infected Republican Party — including the recent abortion ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court he helped shape, and the repeated threats to repeal DC’s home rule being made by certain congressional representatives who are his allies.
“There is something to be said in terms of civic engagement [that] you should not dismiss,” said Dorothy Brizill, director of the government watchdog group DC Watch and a recognized expert in local elections functions and management. “Interacting with your neighbors and others I think [is] critically important. I don’t think it should be cast aside willy-nilly.”
Matt Frumin, who recently won the Democratic Party nomination for Ward 3 DC Council member, agreed about the importance of civic engagement. He recalled his experience as a 10-year-old growing up in Michigan.
“I’m in politics today because of my mother. She would have me go out and work the polls on election day,” he told me on June 21 standing outside the Palisades vote center where he was looking to sway anyone who was still undecided. As a reward for his work in the cold weather, Frumin said, his mother “made me steak and french fries.”
While he acknowledged concerns about maintenance of civic culture, Frumin said he liked making the barrier to voting as low as possible. I do, too.
However, we should all heed Brizill’s warning. Going to a universal mail voting system could produce the unintended consequence of eroding the city’s fragile culture of civic engagement, particularly if in doing so we reduce the number of places to cast in-person ballots on election day.
Already, elected officials — the council and the mayor — too often make it difficult for average citizens to participate in their own government.
Consider, for example, that DC Council committees almost always hold their public hearings during daytime hours in the John A. Wilson Building, far from where people who could be affected by government decisions actually live. Consequently, the same amalgam of District officials, advocates, nonprofit managers and business representatives regularly appear at such sessions, purporting to speak on behalf of low-income residents or others — people with whom they generally have not spoken directly in order to learn exactly what they need or want.
Call it advocacy and government by assumption.
Some people with whom I spoke have predicted more of the same with the likely passage of the Elections Modernization Amendment Act. The legislation would, among other changes, make permanent the recent practice of mailing ballots to all eligible registered DC voters, as was done for both the 2020 general election and last week’s primary. The DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety — which is chaired by Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, who introduced the bill with six colleagues — held a hearing on it earlier this year. It’s unclear when the panel will bring the bill to a vote and present it to the full legislature. A very limited number of other states, including California and Vermont, conduct elections either primarily or exclusively by mail.
The cost for such a system is unclear. I asked Nick Jacobs, the spokesperson for the Elections Board, how much the agency paid to have ballots printed and mailed out to every eligible registered voter (in the case of the District’s closed primaries, that means they’re aligned with one of DC’s political parties). How much did it cost to process those ballots? How much did it cost to purchase drop boxes and to provide security for those boxes?
The city spent $7.4 million for the 2020 general election. However, Jacobs gave me incomplete information for the 2022 primary. Then he sent me an email saying some of the incomplete information was incorrect.
Allen’s office did not respond to my request for comment. However, speaking after the June 21 primary, he discussed the election with The Washington Post: “The District has worked hard, I have worked hard, to make voting easier and easier and easier. And getting the ballot into everyone’s hand, everyone’s mailbox, I think clearly shows we can increase voter turnout.
“I think voters love it,” Allen added.
It’s true the turnout in the primary was higher than in the past several mayoral primaries. According to preliminary calculations by the DC Board of Elections, 32.24% (132,095) of the 409,677 registered voters eligible to participate in the June 21 primary submitted ballots. Of these, 33.24% (43,907) were in person (election day and early voting); 66.76% (88,188) were mail-in and special ballots. That last category may be skewed since special ballots are generally filed inside vote centers.
The increased turnout doesn’t surprise me given the competitive contests in traditionally high-voting areas like wards 3 and 5 along with hard-fought citywide races — mayor, council chair and attorney general.
It’s worth noting that the Elections Board blamed delays in the vote count on the large number of ballots — maybe as many as 30,000 — that were put in drop boxes on election day. Would those voters have stood in line on election day if officials hadn’t said that ballots could be left in those boxes until 8 p.m. that day? I’m betting they would have, given the intensity of the various contests.
Certainly, the number of voters who cast ballots — either in vote centers, via drop boxes or through the U.S. mail — increased substantially over the 18.66% turnout in 2018. That year, 78.23% (70,025) of the people voting in the mayoral primary went to the polls on election day; another 16.19% participated in early voting, while 5.58% mailed their ballots.
As it turns out, this year’s turnout is closer to the results for the 2010 primary, when 37.14% of the city’s 370,416 eligible registered voters actually cast ballots — most of them at traditional voting precincts. The 2010 turnout was due, in part, to a fiercely fought mayoral election between incumbent Adrian Fenty and then-council chair Vincent C. Gray — a race every bit as contentious as this year’s contest.
However, not all communities can boast particularly strong numbers. Charles Wilson, chair of the DC Democratic State Committee and a Ward 8 resident, said that after a previous election where turnout in Ward 8 was somewhere near 7.8% he and others decided to get behind a push for mail-in balloting. “I think mail balloting is a great tool,” he explained, “but it hasn’t necessarily translated in great turnout in Ward 8.
“I don’t know that it can be the solution to the turnout [issue],” added Wilson.
To be fair, Ward 8’s turnout total was greater this year — 20.69% — with 10,466 votes cast, according to the unofficial results posted on the Elections Board website. The jump may be due to the fact that Ward 8 Council member Trayon White was one of four candidates in the Democratic Party primary vying to become the mayoral nominee. Interestingly, the proportion of in-person differs from the citywide average, with 42.68% casting ballots at vote centers on election day or in the 10-day early voting period.
Still, participation was significantly lower there than in Ward 3, which had a turnout of 43.48% (20,348). That’s troubling; there are fewer eligible registered voters in Ward 3 (46,795) than in Ward 8 (50,588). Meanwhile, many Ward 3 voters chose mail-in balloting; the area had the second-lowest proportion of in-person voting, with 29.16% of eligible voters casting their ballots that way.
“Mail-in voting has changed how campaigns interact with voters,” said Wilson, who remembers those not-too-distant days when voters could expect to meet candidates who commonly showed up at early vote centers or on election day. “They would be able to see our neighbors, and candidates could try to persuade voters.
Now that has disappeared,” continued Wilson. “Civic engagement is very important.”
When white women and Blacks pushed for the right to vote and the ability to exercise that right, they were not moved to action by some mechanical process or the idea of mailing a ballot. They wanted to get into the mix. They wanted their voices heard; they wanted to be involved in government decisions that would impact their daily lives and their futures. Equally important, they wanted to claim their space in the public square with or without a soapbox.
They were fighting against an invisibility that had been a key feature of their lives. Instituting universal mail balloting risks reviving such invisibility or exacerbating that already experienced by some communities.
“I have never been big on universal mail-in balloting,” said Brizill. “A lot of people feel comfortable and they like the ease of mail balloting. That may be good for a certain segment of the population.” However, she added, “We should have a mixture of all systems, so no one feels disenfranchised.
“When people champion mail-in balloting, they never reference the problems,” continued Brizill, citing the fact that sometimes people have issues receiving their mail, a concern raised frequently by Ward 8 residents. Then there are times people receive and file their ballots but can’t confirm whether the Elections Board has received them. There are also issues related to whether there is an existing voter signature on file.
Brizill also raised some concerns about the security of mail-in ballots and the “potential for mischief,” noting that on Tuesday she witnessed “ballots mostly from drop boxes being dumped into black trash bags” for transport because the pouches that are typically used were not large enough. “I knew that the mail-in ballots on election day were fairly significant,” she told me.
Many of these problems were identified in the 2020 election. They reappeared this year. Perhaps Allen will conduct a rigorous post-primary oversight hearing to ensure improvements for the general election.
That’s wishful thinking on my part. Expecting elected officials to pause universal mail balloting so they can spend more time considering its adverse consequences or how to increase turnout in low-voting communities without keeping them hidden from view is also a fool’s dream.
Wilson has it right: “The loudest voices going into the Wilson Building or organizing email campaigns are those from the more affluent neighborhoods. Politicians pay attention to where the votes are coming from.”
This article was first published in TheDCLine.org