Greater Greater Washington

Printed voter guides are a necessary service

While the DC Board of Elections and Ethics' efforts to cut costs in the April 26th election were logical, they may have been detrimental to those without Internet access or extensive knowledge of the long slate of candidates.


Photo by antisocialtory on Flickr

In an effort to cut costs for the low-turnout special election, DCBOEE decided to forgo their usual practice of mailing an election guide to registered voters. Instead, they mailed a postcard notifying voters of the upcoming election and published an online-only voter guide. DCBOEE should consider implementing an amended version of this process in the future in order to ensure that all registered voters have access to important election information.

We live in an increasingly digitally-connected world. However, not everyone has, or wants, access to the internet. According to a 2010 report by DC's Office of the Chief Technology Officer broadband adoption rates sit near 40% in Wards 5, 7, and 8 but soar to 90% elsewhere in the city.

In a normal election, information would have been available through traditional media sources such as the Washington Post and local television news. Unfortunately, the special election attracted little media attention, the best of which was available exclusively online.

It would have been fairly difficult for a voter to learn about the candidates unless they were targeted specifically. As ANC 7C04 Commissioner Sylvia Brown has pointed out, only a small number of voters received personal attention from the candidates.

A helpful anecdote can be pulled from my own election day experience. An elderly woman approached me after voting, dismayed that she had never heard of most of the candidates. She was relatively new to town, so the campaigns weren't targeting her. And since she didn't have Internet access, she was relying on traditional media sources for information. She would have benefitted greatly from a physical voter guide.

DCBOEE should consider a hybrid system that allows voters to opt out of receiving a physical voter guide in favor of an online one. The Pew Center on the States recently found that such a system could provide significant savings, while informing a large number of voters. This would provide access to a voter guide that was conveniently tailored to their needs.

Current voters could be informed of the option through social media and Internet outreach. Voters registering for the first time or submitting changes to their registration status could note their preference while filling out necessary forms.

An online voter guide was a good cost saving option for this special election. However, a hybrid process would create long-term savings and provide voters without Internet access necessary information. Until the Internet access is more equally available citywide, the practice of publishing physical voter guides should be maintained.

Matt Rumsey moved to D.C in 2005 to pursue a degree in History at American University. Originally from Connecticut, he has had no intention of leaving D.C. since he moved to Columbia Heights in the summer of 2008. He now lives in Ward 5. He currently works at The Sunlight Foundation. Views here are his own. 

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I don't want to be obnoxious, but an election with a turn-out of less than 10% should be considered failed in general. Not just on the front of material sent to potential voters. Clearly politicians do not give a crap about voters.

by Jasper on Apr 30, 2011 2:19 pm • linkreport

We completely agree (and I worked at Pew before joining the DCBOEE).

This was the first time, to my knowledge, that we have ever done a Voter Guide for a special election. We would have preferred to be able to mail it to every household.

We'll do the math on how many opt-outs it would take next year, but it probably won't be cost-effective to provide an opt-out. It depends whether we mail them to registered voters or (as we did in September and November due to the implementation of same-day registration) have the Post Office simply drop one to each household.

by Alysoun McLaughlin on Apr 30, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

I'm sure I will be labeled as heartless or out of touch for saying this by those obsessed with democracy being some sort of desired end in itself. But chances are that if fewer people without the internet voted (given the correlation with lack of education), it would probably make society better off than worse off.

by Milton on Apr 30, 2011 6:25 pm • linkreport

@Milton, There would have been a time I would have fiercely opposed what you just said. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the validity of a statement a college professor of mine once said to the class ... "Everyone thinks democracy is all about 'majority rules' ... enacting the wishes of the majority. But it's not. It's actually about protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority." I.e., Protecting individual rights are at the heart of a democracy ... not ensuring that everyone has to do what 'most' people consider the right thing.

And as for 'only 10%' voted. Well, apparently it was only that 10% that cared enough to wake up a little earlier that day so that we could vote before going to work (or getting home later from work), waiting in the lines (and yes, some of us actually had lines because our polling places were in buildings that required IDs and going through metal detectors), and generally having to read up and know about the candidates and their stances on the various issues. The other 90% didn't care ... They left it up to us ....

And btw, if I recall, David Catania first got elected some 14 years ago under similar circumstances ... and (I think) only 7% of the voters participated in that election.

by Lance on Apr 30, 2011 8:26 pm • linkreport

@ Lance: That is a false argument. Democracy means that the people have a say. 10% is not the people. Therefore, this is not democracy. It is that simple.

The problem of your argument is that 90% of the people now have no stake in what happens with this at-large seat. This corrodes the legitimacy of government.

And guess what we're seeing in the US? Government popularity is abysmally low!

So, yes people squander their rights by not voting. And yes, voting is a right, not a duty. However, politicians loose credibility when they are apparently so uninteresting that nobody is willing to get up early for them.

And that is exactly the situation we're in.

by Jasper on Apr 30, 2011 10:25 pm • linkreport

@Lance: Maybe you don't have any friends who work third shift, but your injunction to "wake up a little earlier" doesn't really apply to them. But you're right that for a lot of people, voting in a special election for an at-large council seat is not worth losing pay or possibly their jobs. Comments like this reveal more about the unacknowledged privilege of the commenter than anything else.

by Josh on Apr 30, 2011 11:32 pm • linkreport

Let's not pretend that voter turnout would have been much better had an actual guide booklet been sent out. Also, in spite of wards 5, 7, and 8 having less Internet access than the rest of the city, the candidate that these wards overwhelmingly supported is the same candidate that won the election. Go figure. As a result, my own list of people to vote against in future DC elections just keeps getting longer and longer.

by Len on May 1, 2011 12:50 am • linkreport

Not to be too technical, but wards 5,7 and 8's candidate won, yes, but approximately 70% of the people voting did not vote for him. Had it been a two person race between Orange and Biddle, Mara, or Weaver, I doubt Orange would have won.
I don't want to be obnoxious, but an election with a turn-out of less than 10% should be considered failed in general. Not just on the front of material sent to potential voters. Clearly politicians do not give a crap about voters.

by Jasper on Apr 30, 2011 2:19 pm

Isn't it the reverse? Voters did not give a crap about the(se) politicians? A friend of mine didn't vote. It was not an easy thing to vote, but sometimes I think of it as cleaning the kitchen. Someone's got to do it.

by Jazzy on May 1, 2011 8:46 am • linkreport

@ Jazzy: Isn't it the reverse? Voters did not give a crap about the(se) politicians?

It does not matter which way it is around. Either way corrodes the legitimacy of the government.

For the people, by the people. Apparently, the people don't think it matters much who rules them. If this is true, then we do not live in a democracy, but in a autocracy. We might as well get rid of elections. They are a sham.

by Jasper on May 1, 2011 11:36 am • linkreport

If you want people to turn out to vote you need to have it on weekends; many countries around the world do this why it is not done here amazes me. The only reason I could think of is because they don't want everyone to vote. I'm willing to bet if voting was moved to a Sunday the turnout would be much higher.

On average you only have about 50-60 % of a population votes; there has never been 100% turnout in the history of voting since the ancient Greeks.

On the case of broadband adoption all areas of DC can not get it; I know people who live on streets where Verizon and Comcast only offer certain products and wireless signals such as by Cellco Partnership, At&t, T-mobile, Cricket, Sprint + Clear (they share they same network) are horrible in some parts of the city especially by some of the parks.

by kk on May 1, 2011 12:44 pm • linkreport

I agree that voting should be on weekends, but religious fundamentalist would have an absolute conniption, so it will very likely never happen here.

by ontarioroader on May 1, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

@ kk: On average you only have about 50-60 % of a population votes; there has never been 100% turnout in the history of voting since the ancient Greeks.

Gotta call BS on this. Oddly, Greece has (no longer enforced) compulsory voting for all elections, leading to turnouts of 70-80%. Belgium has it as well and has even higher turnouts, almost 90% at the last elections. The UK had 65% at its last parliamentary elections. The Netherlands had 75% for parliament and 56% for the provincial elections. The US had 63% at the last presidential election and considered that high. The 2010 midterms were around 40%.

And let me reiterate that DC has less than 10% last week. That is abysmal by any standard.

by Jasper on May 2, 2011 11:10 am • linkreport

For real?

The DC Voter guides are the biggest joke.

1. A HUGE waste of trees. One year I got it an 9 pages had less than 1/4 used.

2. City employees who write the guide often lack certain basic English skills (as, apparently, their supervisors do as well).

3. If they must be made, there is ABSOLUTELY no reason that they can't be made and then a Ward specific insert put in for each ward. How many millions of pages over the years have been wasted so my neighborhood in Adams Morgan can read about races in Ward 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8?

4. These are not even voting guides. Instead, they are free (AND usually poorly written) advertising for candidates. Any "guide" that turns most of it space over to candidates is no guide at all.

Does ANYONE get ANYTHING from these PATHETIC voter guides? These things are a joke for general elections, let alone special elections.

Why on earth do we not have a simple law: In the event of a vacancy on the city council, the mayor, with approval of a majority of the council shall appoint a successor until the next regular election. In the event that it is the council chair position that is vacant, the Mayor shall appoint an at-large member of the council and the council shall, within 7 days, elect a chairman from among the at-large candidates.

Do we lack THAT much creativity for a council on which, what, 85%+ of the votes are unanimous or close?

ANYONE who cares about DC's budget would put these special elections to bed and call them out for the joke they are.

by Michael Rogers on May 2, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

@ Michael Rogers: In the event of a vacancy on the city council, the mayor, with approval of a majority of the council shall appoint a successor until the next regular election. In the event that it is the council chair position that is vacant, the Mayor shall appoint an at-large member of the council and the council shall, within 7 days, elect a chairman from among the at-large candidates.

No more special elections: +1

by Jasper on May 2, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport

Another suggestion: "Any election shall be considered null and void if the turn-out is lower than 50% of all registredeligible voters. When less than 50% of eligible voters turn out for an election, the majority will be considered to prefer no representation, and the seat will remain unfilled for the remainder of the term".

That will clean up nicely.

by Jasper on May 2, 2011 4:30 pm • linkreport

@Jasper That sounds a like a little but much.... in many cases we'd have tons of empty seats. Ranked voting, would at least mean a majority of voters supported the winner to some degree.

by Michael Rogers on May 2, 2011 4:37 pm • linkreport

@ Michael Rogers: That sounds a like a little but much.... in many cases we'd have tons of empty seats.

Which would save money and make the political process more efficient. Isn't that what many want? Smaller government! I'd love to see republicans argue against this one.

Why don't people have the right to not be represented? 90% of DC clearly did not care who represents them. Why let 10% decide? Is that democracy?

Ranked voting, would at least mean a majority of voters supported the winner to some degree.

Coming from a proportional system, I don't particularly care about elected officials being backed by a majority of any kind. Democracy can work fine without.

by Jasper on May 3, 2011 10:46 am • linkreport

@Jasper

No one is telling people not to. I meant to say http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranked_voting Ranked voting, so please forgive me.

Ranked voting would have given us Al Gore over George Bush. Plurality democracy is a mess. There is nothing wrong with anyone running for office, but when GOP liars create fake candidates to dilute the vote, that is what we need to protect from. GOP will stop at NOTHING to repress votes, they couldn't care less about democracy. There are just enough of them to screw us all over.

Bottom line is this, everyone seems to agree the city BOE and laws can waste money as effectively as anyone else.

by Michael Rogers on May 3, 2011 11:00 am • linkreport

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