By Tim Craig
Published June 13th 2009 in The Washington Post
District residents would be able to register to vote and cast ballots on the same day under a proposal that would remove nearly all barriers to participating in local and federal elections.
The legislation, set to be introduced Tuesday by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), would place no restrictions on early and absentee voting and would grant voting rights to many 17-year-olds. If approved, it would make the District a leader in efforts to try to increase voter participation.
"We put together a bill that will really make us a model jurisdiction for voter participation," said Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment. "For anyone who wants to vote, I want it to be a smooth, efficient operation."
The legislation came out of Cheh's review of how the city handled the 2008 presidential and local elections.
Cheh said many voters were frustrated by the District's policies on absentee voting during the presidential race. The September primary for local races was marred by an apparent computer glitch that generated thousands of phantom ballots that initially resulted in more votes being counted than cast.
In addition to making it easier to vote, Cheh's bill calls for a return to either paper ballots or guaranteed paper receipts from computerized voting machines. After each election, the Board of Elections and Ethics would have to conduct an extensive audit to make sure the results were accurate.
Cheh also wants to mandate that poll workers complete at least four hours of training, and she wants to set new standards for the board of elections, including requiring that its three-members be experienced in "elections law and procedure."
"It's not an indictment of the current members, but an insurance policy for the future," said Cheh, who is optimistic that the full council will approve the bill.
If it does, the new procedures would be in place by the 2010 mayoral and council elections. Cheh has inserted $330,000 in the fiscal 2010 budget to help pay for the changes.
Currently, an eligible voter has to register at least 30 days before an election to participate. The only voters eligible to cast an absentee ballot are those who will be out of town on Election Day or are hospitalized or disabled.
Thousands of people waited in long lines to vote early in the presidential election even though they did not have a valid excuse. If Cheh's bill is approved, the city would adopt "no fault" absentee voting. The board of elections would also be empowered to set up early voting locations across the city.
"A lot of people said, 'Wouldn't it be easier just to create an early voting mechanism?' " said Jesse Lovell, a spokesman for DC For Democracy, a progressive advocacy group that has been working with Cheh on the bill.
Still, Cheh's proposal to allow people to register and vote on the same day could generate controversy.
Paul Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, questioned whether the elections board has the resources to implement same-day registration. Last fall, Craney noted, more than 100 voters were mailed absentee ballots on which some candidates' names were missing.
"I think early voting is fine, because we already basically have it, but I think a lot of people may be apprehensive of same-day registration," Craney said. "To add this kind of workload to the board of elections when they can't even print absentee ballots correctly, I think Mary Cheh may be getting ahead of herself."
Cheh acknowledged that some critics are worried about voter fraud, but she said the ballot of a voter who registered on an election day would be set aside and counted separately after it was confirmed that the person was eligible to register.
Steven Carbo, a senior program director at Demos, a New York-based nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization, said that if Cheh's bill is approved, the District would join nine states in allowing same-day registration.
"It follows the trends we are seeing around the country to make voting more accessible," Carbo said.
Cheh also wants to encourage more teenagers to vote. Although the District allows 17-year-olds to register, they cannot cast a ballot unless they turn 18 before Election Day.
Under the proposal, 17-year-olds would be able to vote in local and federal primaries as long as they will be 18 by the general election in November. The District would allow 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they apply for their driver's licenses.