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FairVote Testimony on Ideas for Local Reform

Released January 28, 2009

Making Washington, D.C. a Model For Voting Rights and Civic Participation

Rob Richie's 1/26/09 Testimony Washington, D.C. Council Board of Elections and Ethics


Thank you for inviting me to testify today. My name is Rob Richie. Born in the District in 1962, I am executive director of FairVote. FairVote is an innovative catalyst for electoral reform founded in 1992. We act to transform American democracy based on a simple premise: our nation's policies should respect every vote and every voice. FairVote engages in innovative research into problems with current electoral rules and practices and potential reforms and convenes democracy advocates to learn from each other's work, analysis and strategy.

Most Americans believe that a fundamental right to vote in our democracy is explicitly guaranteed in our Constitution and laws. In 2000 we found out that this is not so. In the Bush v. Gore decision, the Supreme Court reminded us that Americans have no explicitly protected right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Today there continue to be millions of Americans disenfranchised indirectly by errors in voter registration, long lines, machine failures and partisan election rules and directly by state laws that deny the vote to citizens with felony convictions and federal laws that don't provide opportunities to vote for federal representation. American citizens should, as a human right, have a right to vote, one that establishes a mutual responsibility between government and the governed to ensure that everyone who seeks to cast a vote for their representatives will be able to cast a secure, protected and meaningful vote.

Given that Washington, D.C. is denied voting representation in U.S. Congress, we have a special reason to start this journey right here in our nation's capital. The District can be a showcase to the world and the rest of the country, a veritable "beacon of democracy," demonstrating that its commitment to democracy begins with its own actions. Furthermore, as shown by today's slate of remarkable panelists, this area has an excellent pool of experienced students of reform that I'm sure would be willing to help in this enterprise.

Washington, D.C. should act to ensure every eligible voter in our city can vote conveniently, securely and meaningfully. The proposals in our platform of ideas below fall under two categories: expanding on current legislation and introducing new ideas for Washington, D.C.

Youth Registration and Education: Systematic means to encourage lifelong participation

  • Register every high school student to vote through Washington, D.C. Public Schools before they turn 18.
  • Grant the right for advance voter registration to all citizens turning 16. This will make it easier to reach all high school students with a voter education module that includes voter registration and all youth when obtaining a learner's permit to drive
  • Implement deputy registrar recruitment and outreach for high school seniors of voting age who are interested in participating more fully in the election process. Explore having the board of elections train and hire high school students to as contract employees during the fall to assist with implementation of voting technologies.
  • Follow the model of Montgomery County, Maryland on two practices: allowing students as young as 6th graders serve four-hour shifts as assistant pollworkers for community service hours and granting 6th-12th graders suffrage rights to vote annually on city voting equipment for a student school board representative.
  • Require a voter education program in high schools that introduces our students to voting mechanics in our community, through a separate program or through civics classes. Consider a K-12 voting curriculum that introduces students to their role as voters through age-appropriate presentations.

Seeking Universal Adult registration: Full and accurate vote rolls for our city elections

  • Act to pursue automatic voter registration using District tax forms, post office change of address and other District of Columbia government databases
  • Give an NVRA (National Voter Registration Act) form to every new tenant in public housing. Implement a program to deputize landlords and other housing officials to be voter registrars.
  • Explore requiring all eligible adults to either register to vote or decline to register, but if and only if the government acts pro-actively to make registration easy and cost-free.
  • Explore allowing legal immigrants who are permanent residents to vote in city elections. Note that legal immigrants are overwhelmingly taxpayers and often homeowners with children in the schools. The path to citizenship can often take many years.

Uniformity, Transparency & Accountability: Establishing trustable and verifiable elections

  • Adequate funding and pollworker training: Increase the District's election budget to increase the number of poll workers and election judges, and raise their pay. Expand training and provide for contingencies. Recruit people of all ages and from all neighborhoods, including bilingual and multilingual volunteers.
  • Transparency and accountability: Our election administrators should make all their plans for running elections and ballot designs available for public review and comment well before an election. We should establish clear measurements of successful election administration such as number of miscast votes, length of lines at the polls and responsiveness to problems exposed on Election Day to be able to evaluate election administrators' performance and strengthen accountability.
  • Voter guides: We should follow many states' example and send city-issued voter guides to every registered voter with all relevant information for the upcoming election. Printed guides would also be distributed at all city offices, libraries, and participating businesses.

Public Interest Ballot Design & Voting Technology: Minimize errors and ensure accuracy

  • With the numerous election problems demonstrated throughout the nation, the District of Columbia should mandate voter-verifiable paper ballots for all voters.
  • Legislate for government-owned and operated equipment and software, as well as giving the Board of Election Commissioners full discretion in purchasing the machines and the budget and authority to switch to improved technology as it becomes available. Oklahoma and New York State provide examples of states where elections are run without working through private vendors.

Early/Provisional/Absentee Voting: Boost participation, turnout, and engagement

  • Campaign for an Election Day holiday
  • Explore folding two elections into one with instant runoff voting.
  • Allow ease for poll workers to address and correct problems that arise on Election Day by supplying adequate provisional ballots.
  • Allow early voting and ensure sufficient polling places for early voting to make it accessible to more people.
  • Pass an ordinance that requires the counting of every provisional ballot, as well as a way for voters to verify that their provisional or absentee ballot was counted.
  • Support Election Day registration with sufficient proof of residency.

GOING BEYOND: THE NEXT STEPS TO CLAIM DEMOCRACY

Instant Runoff Voting: Ensure majority winners and positive campaigns

  • Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice and then simulates a series of runoff elections to determine the most popular candidate. The campaign to implement instant runoff voting for municipalities is growing - just last year, for example, Memphis (TN) became the latest city to pass it in a charter amendment vote approved by 71% of voters.
  • One approach for instant runoff voting is to explore election of citywide leaders and city council within their wards in one high turnout, majority vote election rather than spread elections over two separate Elections Days. Parties can nominate one or more candidates per office without state-financed primaries, and all candidates can have access to the ballot with 50 valid signatures. Alternatively, instant runoff voting can be used to replace plurality vote rules in party primaries and replace the plurality elections for the school board.

Proportional voting: Promote fair representation and diverse government

  • Proportional voting was used to elect the Illinois state house of representatives from 1870 to 1980 and is used in most of the world's leading democracies. This principle voting gives more voters the power to elect a representative and more balanced representation. The District of Columbia already makes one key nod toward the concept of fuller representation by having the two at-large seats that cannot be won by the majority party. The District should adopt proportional voting for local ANC elections and explore its use for some or all of members of the school board and city council.
  • The District should explore a larger city council. Every state legislature has far more members than 13, and some city councils like those in New York City and Chicago have at least 50. With a larger city council, the council could operate more like a legislature, and better systems of representation could more easily be implemented.

Campaign finance reform: Limit special interest influence on city decisions

  • Require and reserve free television time prior to an election for candidate spotlights, debates, and other election information.
  • Institute a public financing matching plan, such as New York City's plan where candidate accepting certain contribution and spending limits receive four public dollars for every dollar they raise.