Reimagining Voting in DC Through An Equity Lens


May 7, 2021

In the District of Columbia, we collectively rail against the disenfranchisement of DC residents in the Congress, and rightfully so. We do not have a right to vote on federal laws, yet we are governed by those laws and taxed to pay for them. Politics based on specious constitutional arguments have largely silenced DC residents for more than two hundred years. While DC continues its fight for statehood, the DC government should take all available steps to ensure DC residents can exercise a meaningful right to vote locally regardless of the times or who sits in Congress.

While some states seized upon the vulnerability bred from COVID-19 to disenfranchise voters, the DC Board of Elections implemented many new, positive changes to the voting process, including mail-in ballots, ballot drop boxes, and super vote centers. One of the critical decisions arising from the pandemic will be how we ensure participation in the Democratic process moving forward. We should view this as an opportunity to connect with our community and bring about new ways to allow all DC voters to participate in our democracy safely now and in the future.

Through my work with Democrats for Education Reform (DFER DC), I have led teams of DC residents who have reached out to more than 100,000 DC voters. Our goal is always to understand voter priorities as they relate to students. Voters want the opportunity to be heard, and we have worked nimbly to meet their needs. Last year, we retooled our entire Get Out the Vote approach to bring information to voters in new ways, encourage DC residents to register to vote absentee, and provide voters with ballot pick-up services. However, during this time, we noticed some areas in which the DC Board of Elections could improve its voter outreach efforts.

As we reimagine our voting process in DC, one of our first updates should remove transportation and information barriers. The Board of Elections implemented ballot drop-off boxes and curbside voting, which was beneficial to voters. They should consider increasing the number of ballot drop-off boxes and initiate ballot pickup plans in low-income housing areas and particularly at senior centers. Some of the voters we spoke to shared that they spent much of their lives, or were the legacy of those who spent most of their lives, exercising their right to vote because they had grown up knowing the cost of disenfranchisement. As a result of the pandemic, barriers such as inconsistent transportation options took that opportunity from them.

Additionally, the DC Board of Elections should ensure all eligible voters receive their ballot by mail before election day. Last year, I received my mail-in ballot on election day. Because I am able-bodied and have a career that keeps me informed about elections, I could vote early in person. I shudder to think what the delay may have cost people who needed more time to make an alternative plan.

The DC Board of Elections should also consider more comprehensive voter education and communication concerning election day challenges and the benefits to voting early. While we certainly saw an increase in early voting, as did most of the country, those caught within the injustice of the internet divide and, therefore, without access to the internet or an internet-connected device had fewer opportunities to receive critical information.

Another recommendation is to over-communicate the importance of postmark deadlines through radio ads, text messages, and other innovative media forms. Thousands of voters and I received news about early voting but no clear messaging around vote by mail postmark deadlines. Voters who dropped their ballot in a mailbox after the last U.S. Postal Servicepick-up on election day, lost their right to vote. Too many of the voters we met were unaware that this was a factor.

As we face the uncertain future, one thing is clear: now, more than ever, to truly do right by our communities and ensure robust participation in our democracy, here in DC and across the country, all states must reimagine their local election processes.  We must safeguard all residents’ right to vote and provide the tools for every voter to choose a voting plan that best works for them as individuals and the architects of our nation’s future.

Erika Harrell is the Deputy Director for DFER DC.