Statement from Elizabeth Falcon, Executive Director, DC Jobs With Justice on the experience of DC primary voters

Yesterday, I watched as voters in my neighborhood precinct, Emory Recreation Center, stood in line for hours. Wait times for residents who arrived after about 5:00 pm were over four hours, confirmed by the fact that the last voters who arrived before 8:00 pm voted after 12:30 am.

Hundreds of voters, mostly Black, stood in line to perform their civic duty. The last voters cast ballots up to six hours after DC curfew started and four hours after the public transit stopped running. These dedicated voters maintained social distance and wore masks. They affirmed their neighbors as they waited together to vote for their chosen candidates.

Many have responded to the protests calling for the protections of Black lives over the last week with an urge for civic participation at the voting booth. It is a travesty that in a city where the largest group of voters are Black, that the barrier to voting on Election Day was so high.

This situation could have been avoided. And it begins with the agency taking responsibility for their failings. Unfortunately, so far leadership has failed to do so. As reported in the Washington Post June 2, 2020:

Michael Bennett, the chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections, acknowledged the election did not go smoothly because the agency’s technology was not able to handle the surge of absentee ballot requests, and because voting on Election Day was higher than officials thought it would be.

“The good news is I’m really, really glad we had so many people interested and willing to vote,” Bennett said. “The bad news is everyone decided to vote on the last day that vote centers are open and they decided to do it in person, and that just created an incredible logjam when you consider the fact we are in the middle of a pandemic.”

This situation is not unique to this agency or to the pandemic, and there is a lot we can learn from it. This situation highlights what DC residents deserve from DC government agencies:

Widespread public education: DC residents should have been better informed on the early voting locations and schedule as well as the limited polling sites that would continue through election day. Free/affordable media could have been generated by volunteering to go on local TV and radio stations, creating easy to share social media graphics, and asking community groups to spread the word.

Engaging all parties in being part of the solution: DC government wanted to protect poll workers and the general public by changing the way our election was held. This is a laudable goal. The voters waiting in line were clearly very civically minded, they could have been engaged as part of the solution. For example, D.C. Board of Elections could have put out a message saying: to protect your neighbors from exposure to COVID-19, vote over the weekend. Instead the message on Tuesday was: you did it wrong by going to vote on Election Day. 

Honesty and transparency: D.C. Board of Elections encouraged residents to request absentee ballots but then was unable to handle the number of requests. This is not unexpected or unforgivable. We are all operating in a pandemic with fewer resources and increased needs. However, there should have been a process to inform residents that they would not be receiving their requested ballots and to make alternate plans. Ideally, this would have been by directly outreaching to residents and helping them identify another safe way to vote. If this was not possible, widespread public education would have filled some gaps.  Since it takes time to mail ballots, the agency knew before election day that they would fail to meet their goal of meeting voters requests, but their response to that knowledge was insufficient.

Ability to pivot to new solutions when plans fail: DC government should have asked for volunteers from the public or from other agencies to support D.C. Board of Elections when the process of sending absentee ballots became too onerous, rather than allow the system to fail. Once the agency created the email option for ballots, a full plan for utilization should have been implemented. Since the process was not effective on mobile devices, many residents left the line then came back after trying on home computers. D.C. Board of Elections could have staged staff members or volunteers at polling stations specifically to help people print and access their email ballots using computers and printers elsewhere in the polling location.

Planning for – and addressing – the known barriers residents face: DC public libraries are closed, so many people do not have access to computers and printers. The public transportation system closed one hour after polling sites, and many people do not have access to cars. There was increased policing and a curfew in effect which made walking home after 7:00 illegal (although election activities were exempted). There is a global pandemic. No steps were taken to plan for these realities. Computers and printers were not available. Rides were not coordinated. No public health officials were on site to share PPE or information with waiting voters.

Acknowledging the value of residents’ time: Too often, in order to engage with DC agencies, residents must dedicate their own time to accessing basic rights, protections, and services. Last night, countless hours of parenting, work, or care were lost by thousands of residents stuck in line. That was also a time that many residents were also exposed to more people than they have been in three months. Time with people, especially many people, is a health hazard during the pandemic.

I share these thoughts not simply to blame and bash D.C. Board of Elections. These failings represent systemic failings by our government to work for the people, which disproportionately hurts Black residents and other communities of color as it did last night. This experience is echoed across DC agencies meant to serve our residents. The Metropolitan Police Department regularly refuses or stonewalls the release of body-camera footage.  Department of Employment Services has failed to do widespread public education of DC’s sick days law pre-pandemic or the new federally-mandated COVID sick days. DC Health has not met with the healthcare unions in any formal or informal way since the beginning of the pandemic, even while poor contact tracing endangered staff and patients at healthcare facilities.  The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs fails to provide housing inspections in the languages that DC residents speak. DC Healthcare Alliance members are forced to recertify every six months, although we know that this requirement causes them to drop off our health insurance rolls. Homeless families are regularly expected to sit and wait at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center to access shelter. This is NOT a failure of front-line staff, these are decisions made from the top of the agencies and administration in the direction of programming and resources. 

It is bad enough that our election system so poorly met the demand last night. But we must see more than that. We must see a failure of leadership to care for the needs of our communities.

In light of everything that has happened this week, this may seem like a small issue. However, the rage being expressed in DC and across the country is a reflection of the direct violence at the hands of police as well as the ongoing and systemic failure to ensure that Black lives have equal access to health, economic stability, government services, and justice. Generations of Black Washingtonians made DC what it is. From Go-Go to the White House, Black brilliance literally built this city. We cannot allow our systems to continue to fail Black residents.

Photo credit: Elissa Silverman via Twitter from Emory at 12:30 AM June 3, 2020. 

Disclosure: I was at the polling station as a campaign volunteer and in my personal capacity, not as a representative of DC Jobs With Justice. The insights reflected here are a statement of my professional assessment of the situation as Executive Director of DC Jobs With Justice.