Distress Call? “Embattled” DC Board of Elections Under Close Scrutiny on Election Day 2014


[Image courtesy of nbcwashington]

Over the years, I’ve covered the various challenges facing the DC Board of Elections (DCBOE) … now, after a rough primary and in the wake of an embarrassing error (an upside-down DC flag on the voter guide – see above) the agency is approaching its last chance to reassure District residents that it can do the job. The Washington Post has more:

Along with candidates for mayor and D.C. Council, the agency that printed the ballots may well be among the winners and losers to be decided Tuesday by District voters.

After a breakdown halted the vote count for hours during the city’s April primaries and a voter guide was mailed out with an upside-down D.C. flag printed on it, lawmakers say the future of everything about the D.C. Board of Elections hangs in the balance.

The Board and its leadership seem to recognize their situation:

Clifford D. Tatum, the board’s embattled executive director, seems to know…

In September, Tatum said he could not guarantee a smooth election night. But on Thursday, he said he is seeking, with a little luck, to have the ballot counting done before midnight, a redemptive performance that could begin healing the board’s battered reputation.

“I want the voters to have a good experience,” Tatum said. “Any of the energy that’s going around . . . about how the board is perceived, I certainly don’t want that to dissuade people from coming out to vote.”

It won’t be easy; not only is the city’s political environment changing for this election, it also has a new and potentially controversial contest on the ballot:

With registered Democrats accounting for more than three quarters of D.C. voters, the city has never come close to needing a recount in a general election for mayor. But two independent candidates hope to break the Democratic streak, and there is a chance the city will find itself in unchartered territory, with a mayoral race too close to call on the night of a general election.

Another potential pitfall is the city’s first — and hotly contested — election of an attorney general. There have been competing endorsements from unions and high-profile Democrats, and the contest remains fluid.

A key city legislator already is watching the DCBOE closely:

Regardless of what happens Tuesday, council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said that his confidence in the board has been shaken and that changes at the board are needed.

“I am squarely focused right now on working with the board to ensure a smooth process,” said McDuffie, whose Government Operations Committee has oversight of election issues. “But, to be honest, I don’t have full confidence in the board right now, given the mistakes that have been made. . . . I think that the board and the executive director are fully aware of the gravity of the election and want it to go flawlessly.”

The upside-down error is just the latest problem at the agency; long delays in counting earlier this year resulted in a series of conflicting explanations, and the DCBOE did itself by favors by telling the City Council that its voting machines purchased in 2010 were already outdated. With that as backdrop, Tatum and his team are doing everything they can to reassure policymakers and voters that they intend to get it right his time:

On Thursday, Tatum took Washington Post reporters on a tour of election preparations, including a final class for almost 50 computer technicians who will rove city polling places Tuesday to troubleshoot problems.

After 10 percent of poll workers failed to show up April 1, the board has also trained 180 extras — five times as many as for the primaries — who can be called up Tuesday, if needed, to work the $160 shifts. Altogether, the board expects to have 1,800 people working the polls.

Tatum also promised that the board would release early-voting results within 30 minutes of when the polls close at 8 p.m. A first report on Election Day voting will follow at 9:15 p.m., he said. Additional updates will come at least every 45 minutes, he said.

“If we do that, we should be able to finish by midnight,” Tatum said.

It may be Tatum’s last chance to make a good impression: as the article notes, Washington’s new mayor (incumbent Vincent Gray lost in the primary) will likely shape the future of DCBOE as all three current board members’ terms have expired.

DC is edging perilously close to Richland County territory – an election office that gets so far behind that nothing it does seems to be enough to restore confidence. To its credit, the agency knows where it stands and is doing everything it can to have a smooth election. Whether or not those plans work out on Election Day – and Night – will tell us if the upside-down flag on the voter guide was a simple error or a distress call in disguise.

Stay tuned …

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