Photo of two men wearing blue vests that say "elections" on them.
Two election volunteers. Photo by Ken Martin

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wo Ward 8 residents are suing the D.C. Board of Elections, arguing that a series of new voting procedures in the wake of the pandemic have violated the Voting Rights Act.

As with elsewhere in the country, D.C. officials have encouraged residents to use absentee ballots to vote by mail in the upcoming June primary. In-person voting centers will still be available for early voting and on election day, but they’ll be drastically reduced—just 20 centers spread out across the city in contrast to the usual 144.

The problem? Ward 8 residents say they haven’t been receiving consistent mail deliveries, meaning that many of them didn’t receive a voter guide with the forms to request an absentee ballot, or did not receive the absentee ballot itself even after requesting it, according to the lawsuit.

The suit names two Ward 8 residents, Carnecia Robinson and Florence R. Barber, who both claim they’ve had spotty mail service to their Ward 8 homes for years and that it has only gotten worse during the pandemic. Neither woman received their voter guide, according to the suit, which alleges that Barber also hasn’t received an absentee ballot yet.

“Many Ward 8 residents were receiving their mail intermittently and sporadically when the Voter Guides were being sent by the BOE. Therefore, Ward 8 residents never received instruction on how to request a mail-in ballot; never received instruction on when the mail-in ballots were due; and never received instruction on the new polling locations,” the suit reads. “Election Day will be confusing for many Ward 8 voters who have not received their ballots or instructions on where to vote from BOE.”

The lawyer who brought the suit, Aristotle Theresa, tells DCist that the BOE failed to take into account many of the historical inequities that continue to plague Ward 8 when it created new voting procedures during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has lead to a bunch of hastily implemented voting policies, and the District of Columbia didn’t adequately take into account the historical conditions of Ward 8, or the current reality of Ward 8,” Theresa says. “As a result, it’s had a negative impact on a protected class, in this case mostly African Americans.”

As an example, the lawsuit takes issue with the three polling places that the Board of Elections chose for Ward 8: the Barry Farm Recreation Center, Anacostia High School, and Malcolm X Opportunity Center. The suit argues that the first two are too far from many of the most populous (and most heavily African American) parts of the ward and that gang rivalries could discourage residents from showing up to the Malcolm X Opportunity Center.

“When you look at the map, all of them are on one side of the ward. They put the polling locations everywhere where it’s being gentrified,” Theresa says. “A lot of people in Ward 8 don’t drive. There are no bike lanes, and the buses have been shut down. How are people supposed to get from one side the ward to the other side of the ward?”

Meanwhile, the suit also argues that the fear of infection could depress voter turnout. Ward 8 has been particularly hard hit by the outbreak—accounting for 22 percent of all deaths from the virus in D.C., the highest share of any other ward by far. More broadly, African Americans have made up 77 percent of the city’s total deaths, far outweighing their share of the population (46 percent). Ward 8 is majority black.

Taken together, the suit contends that these circumstances constitute a violation of the Voting Rights Act, because the political process is “not equally open to participation by members of a protected class.” The 1965 law is meant to prevent discriminatory voting practices.

The D.C. Board of Elections declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White is running for reelection against several challengers, including a former staffer of his former rival, LaRuby May (White narrowly lost to May in a special election for the seat, before overtaking her in the next election.) In a letter to White’s campaign manager Absalom Jordan, the BOE declined to move one of the voting centers, and said they had been chosen based on geographic positioning, voting population, accessibility, and space to accommodate social distancing, among other factors.

Similar lawsuits have been filed around the country. In Wisconsin, a suit argued that thousands of voters were precluded from April elections because of fewer in-person polling locations and problems accessing absentee ballots. The plaintiffs in that case also alleged a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ward 8 has submitted the lowest number of absentee ballot requests of any ward in the city, at 2,182. In contrast, Ward 3—one of the city’s wealthiest wards—has submitted 11,155 requests as mid-May, according to data from the city. (In the last two election years, Ward 3 has seen roughly double the turnout of Ward 8.)

The suit has signed affidavits by more than a dozen Ward 8 residents attesting to spotty, inconsistent mail service and to the fact that they never received a voter guide. After a letter from Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton demanding answers about the bad service, the United States Postal Service said personnel shortages stemming from the pandemic are creating backlogs and slower service in Congress Heights (still, some residents say the issues predate the current health crisis).

The lawsuit asks for the BOE to provide additional polling locations in the more populous parts of Ward 8 and to pay attorneys’ fees for the suit.

This story has been updated with comments from Aristotle Theresa and new information regarding the number of absentee ballots requested in Ward 8. The initial number was an erroneous over count from the BOE.