Op-Ed: A special election and a special opportunity to improve our democracy

By Todd Brogan and Charles Wilson
Guest contributors / Op-Ed

Ward 4 voters will head to the polls in 2018 not once, not twice, but three times. Or, at least that’s what we hope happens.

In addition to the now-passed June 19th primary and the upcoming general election on November 6th, Ward 4 has a special election on December 4th to fill a vacant State Board of Education (SBOE) seat. Outgoing SBOE member Lannette Woodruff announced in July that she would not be seeking re-election in hopes that the Board of Elections would put the position on the ballot in November. Unfortunately, the Board determined that it would require a special election all its own.

This is bad news for candidates, voters, and of course, our schools. Special elections for SBOE seats have abysmal turnout. When the District 1 SBOE seat was the only race on the ballot in 2007, only 762 people voted, or less than 1% of eligible voters. When it happened again in Ward 8 in 2014, just 3.2% voted. Even when an SBOE special election shares ballot space with bigger races, as it did when we elected both a Ward 4 SBOE member and an At-Large Councilmember in 2011, turnout was only 11% in Ward 4.

Low voter turnout in DC elections has myriad causes. From the lack of competition within the dominant Democratic party to the influence big donors have on politicians’ priorities, there are deep systemic issues that need to be addressed. While we do that work, there are immediate changes we can make to our elections that are likely to increase participation.

One of those changes, proposed by the Ward 8 Democrats after this year’s low-turnout primary, is to allow voting by mail.

As romantic as the notion of voters gathering together at a local polling site can be, the reality of in-person voting is much less so. In Ward 4 alone, we heard from residents who either didn’t or almost didn’t make it to the polls thanks to the length of their commute, the hours they worked, their family and childcare obligations, the inaccessibility or poor frequency of public transit, their lack of confidence in those clunky electronic voting machines, or a lack of paper ballots at their precinct.

Some of these obstacles can be addressed by allowing people to vote by mail, a measure already undertaken in Oregon, Colorado, Washington state, and several municipalities, with remarkable results.  

The process is simple. Take Oregon as an example: voters receive an official ballot and a secure envelope with a signature line about 2-3 weeks before an election. The voter simply fills it out and mails it so that it is received by 8pm on Election Day. They even make special drop boxes available for those who cut it close to the deadline. In DC, we could improve on this model by providing pre-paid postage and delivering the official ballot packaged with the usual Voter Guide.

We think the Special Election for Ward 4 SBOE, which already has nine candidates working to get on the ballot, provides a perfect opportunity to test vote-by-mail in the District.

When the Council returns from its recess in September, Councilmember Brandon Todd could introduce emergency legislation to provide the Board of Elections limited authority and funding necessary to promote and test the method. Polling sites would still be open on December 4th, but for the first time, tens of thousands of Ward 4 voters would have the opportunity to participate on their own time and on their own terms.

About the Authors

Todd Brogan is a labor organizer and a Ward 4 Committeeman on the Democratic State Committee. He lives in Petworth.


Charles Wilson is president of the Ward 8 Democrats and an At-Large Committeeman on the Democratic State Committee. He lives in Anacostia.