Precinct Reshuffle Could Mean Long Walks for Voters/Loose Lips

Originally published on Washington City Paper’s Loose Lips blog on Oct. 28, 2013

Precinct Reshuffle Could Mean Long Walks for Voters

By Sarah Kaplan

Earlier this month, a representative from the D.C. Board of Elections came to a Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting to explain the BOE’s new voter precinct plan. The reaction came quickly: The commission didn’t like it.

“Isn’t this somehow counter-productive as hell to get people to vote?” says 2B06 Commissioner Mike Silverstein.

Silverstein and other commissioners worried that the plan, which realigns precinct boundaries to match the borders of ANC single-member districts, might confuse voters and force them to walk longer distances to get to their polling places. The ANC voted against the plan, though it says it would work with the BOE to develop a better one.

According to BOE Executive Director Clifford Tatum, the purpose of the realignment is to make elections run more cheaply and smoothly. By concentrating precincts around a couple of SMDs — rather than having voters from as many as five different SMDs reporting to one polling place—the BOE is able to print fewer styles of ballots. It also aims to reduce confusion by having voters report to the same polling place as their neighbors.

But not all ANC commissioners are convinced, and Silverstein’s sentiments have been echoed at the BOE’s recent public hearings on the issue. Gale Black, a Crestwood resident and commissioner for SMD 4A08, testified in opposition to the plan at the Oct. 18 hearing. Her constituents would have to walk as far as a mile and a half to their new polling place at West Elementary.

“It’s further away, and since we do have a sizable population that’s over age 70, they’d have difficulty getting there,” she says. “My own perception is we’re going onto an election year, and it could influence the outcome if we can’t get out to our polling place.”

It might not be time to freak out just yet. Tatum says that the realignment plan is still preliminary and that getting feedback like Black’s is exactly the purpose of the public hearings.

“If you don’t like this polling location, is there another location within your SMD that would work?” he says.

Tatum couldn’t provide an estimate of the average distance between voters and their polling place, or a maximum distance that the BOE was willing to put between a polling place and a precinct’s borders. And Black’s isn’t the only SMD to have its polling place located more than a mile from its outer reaches—some voters in 8C02 and 8D04 would also have a long way to travel under the new system.

The BOE has extended the public comment period on the plan until Nov. 30, and is no longer aiming to fully implement the plan by the April 1 primary. The board may also decide to roll out the plan in phases.

“It may be that we can’t accomplish the goal of having a whole district in a single polling place, but we had to start some place,” Tatum says. “And then folks got a little excited about it.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post originally misstated the date of next year’s primary as April 30.

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