Much has been written and posted on social media about low voter turnout in June’s Democratic primary election, with pundits speculating about the causes. One popular narrative was that, counter to their well-to-do neighbors, residents of Wards 7 and 8 aren’t concerned about the future of the District or improving quality of life. This defeatist thinking is dangerous and hearkens to an era when the District’s political class peered east of the Anacostia River and deemed residents’ calls for more jobs and less crime as undeserving of attention.
Rather than blame disillusioned residents, gentrification or political apathy in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, we should be honest about the fact that voters stayed home all across the city. This reflects a troubling downward trend that has been underway for several election cycles in the District, and proves again that campaigning in “all eight wards” is no longer enough to drive voter turnout.
The District must create an election reform agenda that empowers residents of all ages and takes into account the realities of 21st-century work, parenting and commuting in the District. Voting by mail, combined with the option of in-person voting at the polls, represents a glowing opportunity for the District to expand voting access and eliminate existing barriers to the voting booth on Election Day.
Rather than doubling down on a regressive system that hinders voters who struggle with work commitments, child-care responsibilities and limited transportation every day (not just on Election Day), enacting universal voting by mail – beyond the mail-in absentee ballots that voters can request no fewer than seven days before an election – would boost turnout across the District. Residents are already bombarded with voter guides and education material in the weeks before Election Day. Why not pair this effort with a ballot? It’s a simple, cost-effective and progressive measure that has proved to boost turnout in Oregon, Colorado and Washington state.
In the weeks ahead, the Ward 8 Democrats will work with our counterparts in other wards to start a dialogue and create an education campaign to build momentum for voting by mail and other election reforms, including lowering the District’s voting age to 16 and exploring the use of mobile technology to vote. We also plan to meet with the mayor, council members, the Board of Elections and the D.C. Democratic State Committee to explain why election reforms are not only necessary but also vital to our democracy. We also will request funding in the next budget cycle to implement these key reforms so that the District can join the ranks of states, cities and towns expanding election options.
Residents of the District deserve a government that works for them, and an election process that reflects the lived experiences of Washingtonians. The Ward 8 Democrats remain committed to the fight for full voting rights and statehood. But let’s think outside the traditional ballot box in our fight to increase voting access for District residents.
The writer is president of Ward 8 Democrats Inc.