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New D.C. Election Leaders Face Big Stage in September, November Votes PDF  | Print |  Email
By Dan Seligson, Electionline.org   
July 17, 2008
Fixes in place to address primary woes, but inexperience still has some nervous

This article appeared in the Electionline Weekly and is reported here with permission.

Election officials around the country have been bracing for record turnout in the presidential election. In the Nation’s Capital, however, departures and replacements in the upper echelons of election administration – and lingering concern over voting troubles during last February’s primary – has activists and residents fearing more problems at the polls.

In May, Alice Miller, executive director of the Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE) for the District of Columbia for over a decade, took a new position as chief operating officer for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. 

That same month, William O’Field, the board’s spokesman and poll worker coordinator, trainer and recruiter also announced his retirement from the division. O’Field had been with the board for more than a decade. The city’s registrar job is open, advertised since April.

Past chairman of the BOEE Charles R. Lowery Jr. no longer holds his position. He has been replaced in the position by Errol R. Arthur, a newcomer to the board. Lowery continues to serve as a board member. 

The District continues a nationwide search to fill the position of registrar of voters, now being held by an acting registrar.

With all of the comings and goings, Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch, a group that covers D.C. politics and public affairs, said she was bracing for trouble in coming months.

“I’m not even looking toward November. We have a September primary and I’m very concerned about that. I think that the February presidential primary was not handled well – whether you look at not [having] enough ballots to the polling sites, not having the right security sleeves, inadequate staffing, machines breaking down, not having backups… and that was just a primary,” Brizill said. “I think we’re going to see a record turnout in both September local and November general.”

“It would be bad enough if it were just the top spot,” she added. “But it’s two other critical positions – the registrar and the person responsible for recruiting and retaining poll workers.”

District Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, R-At large, said that she shared some of those concerns, especially for November.

“I must tell you I’m a little nervous,” Schwartz said at a July hearing. “Not only do I see the biggest election in our history, I also see what’s going on in your shop….The timing is not great.”

It appears, however, that the department has started to make a number of changes to address the problems revealed in February.

Speaking at the July hearing, Sylvia Goldsberry-Adams, the BOEE’s acting executive director and former operations manager, said her department had undertaken an “extensive review of our activities and procedures…and has been engaged in a comprehensive process of reforming our procedures to further modify and strengthen our processes.”

The changes range from the basic – reordering the alphabet breaks in registration lists to make lines move more effectively – to the more complex such as a new rule calling for trisected poll worker shifts on election day.

Paper ballot shortages, perhaps the most pressing issue in the city that arose last February, has been examined as well, Goldsberry-Adams said.

“The percentage of paper ballots ordered will be increased,” she said. “Less emphasis will be placed on the anticipated use of the touch-screen machines. An analysis of historical trends and registration numbers, precinct by precinct was conducted to enable us to accurately increase the initial ballot distribution.”

The District faces some other challenges though. A report released this month by an advocacy group charged with ensuring Help America Vote Act compliance with disability access found that nearly 10 percent of polling places were structurally inaccessible. In one case, wheelchair lifts were inoperable. In another, a series of sharp turns and narrow pathways made access difficult, while an elevator necessary to get to a polling place lacked controls that a person in a wheelchair could reach and audible floor indicators and Braille characters for voters with visual disabilities.
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