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Can the D.C. special election be done on the cheap?

By Mike DeBonis

Sometime in the first half of next year, the city will be electing a new at-large D.C. Council member to replace Kwame Brown, who will become council chairman Jan. 2.

Running a citywide election at full scale -- meaning two weeks of early voting plus running 143 precincts on election day -- will cost upwards of $500,000, according to an estimate from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. That happens to be $500,000 that the BOEE, and the city generally, has not budgeted for. In a fiscal year in which the city is already projected to come in $175 million short on the bottom line, that's a problem.

But is it possible to run a different type of election? One with a shorter early-voting period, maybe, or with some of those 143 polling places consolidated into "voting centers." Or, perhaps, even an election done solely by mail ballot, like in Oregon and much of Washington.

History indicates that turnout for this election will be meager. During the city's last special elections -- in 2007, for a pair of ward council seats -- turnout was about 23 percent in Ward 4 and about 15 percent in Ward 7. The last special election for an at-large seat, held in 1997, saw only 7.5 percent turnout -- a total of 25,701 votes -- allowing then-Republican David Catania to outpoll Democrat Arrington Dixon.

Does it make sense to pay several hundred poll workers to work an election that's likely to see many polling places serve only a handful of voters? Especially when the city is in tough fiscal straits?

The board is "preparing to provide some options to the council, possibilities that we might be able to do to save the taxpayers some money," said BOEE spokeswoman Alysoun McLaughlin -- including the options mentioned above. But any changes, she said, will probably require the council to pass emergency legislation in the coming months.

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who oversees matters electoral, said she's "hopeful" that money for a full-bore election will be found without much fuss. She raised the possibility last week of using federal grant funds; that's unlikely, however, since federal election grants are supposed to be used for improving elections, not for actually holding elections.

Don't look to Cheh to propose any money-saving shortcuts, calling that "the absolute last, last thing I would do."

"Philosophically, I don't think we can give this short shrift," Cheh said. "People need a full opportunity to vote."

By Mike DeBonis  | November 15, 2010; 1:44 PM ET
Categories:  DCision 2010, The District  
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I agree that we could consolidate several polling places. There are two in AUPARK 50 feet away from each other. The 3 along Conn Ave in NW would be done at UDC. And, why not use earing voting procedures. We can allow folks to come down to our DMV location and vote and other gov sanction locations.

The campaigns themselves can be done for a fraction of the cost that prior District Wide races and we could actually use the race to have a discussion of real DC issues instead of some narrative that divides us. Like the next mayors says.


Posted by: SonofNels | November 15, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Whatever is decided, we have to do something.
Several of the candidates who have expressed interest already hold other elective offices, so that if one of them wins, we'd have another special election scenario on out hands. Where does it end? We can't keep this up.

Posted by: parkbench | November 15, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

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