A proposed plan to redraw the boundaries of voting precincts in the District of Columbia could be a boon to some political candidates but could also create problems for voters, officials and community activists said.
The plan, which the D.C. Board of Elections (BOE) released for public review on Oct. 2, would realign the voting precinct boundaries with those currently delineating Advisory Neighborhood Commissions’ Single-Member Districts. It would also revise the precinct numbering system to reflect the precincts’ designated wards.
“The idea is to streamline the process and create greater efficiencies,” said BOE Executive Director Clifford Tatum.
The District currently has 296 SMDs and 143 voting precincts. Under the current delineation, precincts often encompass several SMDs, causing some “impractical consequences,” the plan asserted. The disjointed boundary lines divide voters in the same SMD, forcing them to vote at different polling places for the same contest, which fosters confusion, officials said. In the 2012 General Election, the BOE had to print, distribute, and deploy 551 distinct ballots, Tatum said. Lastly, the divergent boundary lines burden ANC/SMD candidates who are forced to travel to different locations on Election Day to campaign for the same office.
Some commissioners say they would welcome a change from that system.
“I appreciate what the Board of Elections did. I think they went in the right direction,” said ANC Commissioner Kent Boese, Commissioner of ANC 1A08. “I think the plan solves more problems than it creates.”
But there are major concerns that cannot be ignored, some said.
“Part of the concern is that anytime you create the possibility of confusion or barriers to voting there’s the probability of suppressing the vote,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, whose reelection run will not be directly impacted by the changes.
Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DC Watch, a government watchdog group, said such “turmoil” may not be worth the benefits of the proposed changes.
“These are pretty monumental changes because there are people who, for their entire lives, have voted at a particular precinct,” Brizill said. “There may be some individuals with every intention of voting who go to the polling place they are accustomed going to and are told they are at the wrong site. My experience is that when that happens, they often go home.”
Brizill, a longtime community activist, said she also felt like the board created the plan “in secret” and did not consult with ANCs and other leaders in the community. And the board’s original timeline—the deadline for public commentary was slated for Oct. 30, with an eye to having the new boundaries in place for the April 1, 2014 primaries—was rushed, she added.
“It may have started with good intentions, but it is being executed badly and it has an inadequate timetable,” she said.
Tatum said the board has already responded to some of those concerns. Members of the public will now have until Nov. 30 to offer comments and proposed changes.
And, Tatum added, they have already responded to some of the public’s feedback. Constructive criticism and new ideas will continue to be welcome, he added.
Brizill said she is sure that “things can be worked out,” but it would require more communication. She said that after the plan is finalized and approved by the council, the board needs to make a concerted effort to inform all voters of the changes.
“If you disenfranchise even one voter, that’s a reason to pause and rethink everything,” she said.