Earlier this week, the D.C. City Council passed the final reading of the sweeping Omnibus Election Reform Act of 2009. Sponsored by council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Harry Thomas, Jr. (D-Ward 5), and Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), the bill includes FairVote-backed reforms like pre-registration for 16 and 17-year olds, primary voting for 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election, early voting and Election Day registration.
This landmark legislation will make D.C.'s elections among the most progressive and inclusive in the country. In addition to the reforms mentioned above, it also:
- sets eligibility requirements for the Board of Elections
- gives D.C. employees time off work to vote
- creates a check-off box on the voter registration form to volunteer as a poll worker
- adds the Department of Corrections and the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services as voter registration agencies under the National Voter Registration Act
- allows no-fault absentee voting
- provides expanded opportunities for military and overseas voters to participate in elections
- expands transparency and auditability of election results
- requires the Board of Elections to submit an automatic voter registration feasibility study by May 2010
Our executive director Rob Richie, a D.C. native, has advocated for the city to take up many of these reforms for nearly a decade. For years, FairVote has argued that the District of Columbia should serve as a model for voting rights, voter access and voter participation. Earlier this year, both Rob and I provided testimony to the Council about how they could improve elections in the District. You can read Rob's testimony here and mine here. In addition, I wrote a commentary about this issue that ran in April in the Washington Post.
For too long, the people of the District have been without a vote in Congress--basically living as second-class citizens in our nation's capital. Members of Congress, most recently Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), have used the District as their own petri dish for policy experimentation. Anything approved by D.C.'s local government is required to have the stamp of approval of 535 representatives who are unelected by the city. This lack of autonomy and democracy continues to subjugate D.C.'s citizens to the political whims of these members of Congress who care more about their political fortunes back home than the people in the city where they serve.
The election reform bill approved by the Council this week should prove to the rest of the country that D.C. is serious about the election process and deserves full voting rights in our national legislature. Improved participation in elections and more involvement in the political process by D.C. residents should also show that the city deserves full autonomy--from decisions about schools to its budget and ultimately to statehood. When the D.C. Board of Elections completes its feasibility study about automatic voter registration next year, I hope the Council will also move to implement a system of universal voter registration, where every citizen is automatically added to the voter rolls.
The reforms passed this week, if approved by the mayor and allowed to stand by Congress, will truly make D.C. a beacon of democracy.