DC, like nearly every governing body in the United States from city council to federal, has a problem: Only a fraction of constituents are engaged in their government. There are plenty of reasons why this is, but I believe one of the main culprits is too many people have lost trust that their voice matters.
Since being elected to the council in 2014, I have been working to overhaul, modernize, and open up our elections to ensure more people can vote, more candidates can run, and less big money is muddying the waters.
The way money has influenced politics, even in perception, has made so many people cynical about the entire system. We don’t have to accept this as inevitable. You can see this cynicism play out in elections for local offices—in the last mayoral race, only 27% cast a ballot in the primary and 38% in the general. The fundamental changes I’ve been working on can help us restore trust and increase participation in our elections.
One of my first efforts when I took office was to bring automatic voter registration to the District. When many parts of our country were putting up barriers to voting and keeping people away from the ballot box, we went the other direction and made voter registration easier and smarter. Now, when you get a DC driver’s license or update your information with the Department of Motor Vehicles, you are automatically registered to vote and your information is updated with the Board of Elections (BOE). This means our voter file will be remarkably cleaner and residents from areas of the District with lower voter registration rates will see their numbers increase dramatically.
I also wrote and funded the law that brings our petition process into the 21st century. Now, when you see folks out at Eastern Market on a cold weekend trying to collect petitions to get on the ballot, they can use an e-tablet to get your information and connect it directly to your voter file for verification—with BOE’s final approval for quality control. This will speed up the process and eliminate many issues around bad signatures or inaccurate voter information. It’ll also let voters know that their record may be out of date and they should update it before Election Day.
And most recently, I’ve shepherded through the Council the Fair Elections Act, a bill creating a public financing option for candidates running for mayor, councilmember, or State Board of Education. This is a big deal and it’s going to change how candidates run for public office by changing who they spend most of their time with: you, their constituent.
How does it work? For candidates who qualify, they can agree to take a lower max donation (for mayor, $200 instead of $2,000; for ward-based councilmember, $50 instead of $500) and receive a five-to-one match on every dollar given by an individual DC resident. They’d also receive a base grant to help kick-start their campaign. In exchange for all of this taxpayer money, they agree to take no money from corporations or traditional political action committees (PACs).
The common critique against publicly financed campaigns usually revolves around this question: “Why should taxpayers pay for incumbents who already raise tons of money?”
This is looking at the question the wrong way—the amount of money isn’t the big problem. It’s where that money comes from that creates such distrust from voters. And that matters a lot. Ask yourself—if you only have $10 you can afford to give to a candidate, do you believe right now that money gets your voice heard? In many cases, people don’t believe so. But under the Fair Elections Act, candidates are going to work very hard to earn your donation because that $10 donation now becomes $60.
I’ve been working on these issues since before I ran for office. I came very close to getting a ballot initiative through that would have asked DC voters to consider banning all corporate gifts outright—we fell short at the last moment. And four years ago, when I ran to be the Ward 6 councilmember, I won without taking any corporate or PAC money—along with my at-large colleague Elissa Silverman. We were the first to do so successfully in the city’s history.
I believe these policies will re-energize Ward 6 and District residents. I can’t do as much to give you faith in what’s happening in the halls of Congress or in Donald Trump’s White House, but as the chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, I am doing a lot to help you trust and believe in your voice in our system.
And I’m not done. In the next few months, we’re going to work on legislation that addresses pay-to-play politics and contributions from city contractors. I want to address overcrowding at polling locations where population density has soared. And I want outreach from BOE to be modernized so voters can get information the way they got lots of other things: electronically.
All of these little and not-so-little changes will help more District residents believe in their own voice to shape a government of the people, by the people.
By: Charles Allen
Ward 6 Councilmember