jonetta rose barras: Brizill, ballots and the Board of Elections

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When the DC Board of Elections recently upheld the challenge of at-large DC Council member Elissa Silverman against her principal opponent S. Kathryn Allen, they could have titled their ruling the “The Brizill Effect.” While Dorothy Brizill was not involved in the ballot fight, the incumbent still may want to thank the local government watchdog for the work she did nearly two decades ago in the case involving then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Elections officials used that case as partial foundation for their decision to deny Allen access to the 2018 general election ballot. Thus, they have made Brizill the high bar in the submission of petition signatures while establishing a significant hurdle for anyone who may want to challenge their decision in the DC Court of Appeals.

Photo by Bruce McNeil

“I never once thought I was setting any standard that would be upheld years later,” said Brizill, head of DC Watch, a government watchdog organization. “All I was trying to do was get adherence to the laws on the books.

“I am somewhat gratified that the cases I was involved in were not challenged or overturned [in the Court of Appeals],” added Brizill. Arguably one of the leading experts in DC elections and campaign finance laws, she has tenaciously advocated over the years for comprehensive reform. She said her pleas have been dismissed repeatedly by the mayor and the DC Council.

With her track record, they should listen.

Whether people were here or not in 2002, they likely know the improbable story about a sitting mayor being knocked off the ballot that year because of the fraudulent activity of a campaign worker and that individual’s relatives. Brizill challenged Williams’ petitions, alleging widespread fraud. The Elections Board agreed. Chaired by Ben Wilson, the board asserted it couldn’t trust any of the signatures and chose to kick Williams off the ballot.

Current board chair Michael Bennett made a similar ruling in the recent Silverman-Allen fight. Concerned with known fraud and faced with sworn testimony by at least two people who said they had not circulated Allen’s petitions on which their names appeared, elections officials tossed aside more than 600 voter signatures on those documents.

Bennett noted the similarities between the Williams and Allen cases: “Absent the signatures attributable to the offending circulators, it was numerically impossible for Mr. Williams to achieve ballot access, [and] Ms. Allen’s petition suffers the same deficiency.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The Elections Board has referred the case to the DC Office of the Attorney General. “We can confirm that OAG received the referral from the Board of Elections today, and we are reviewing the matter to determine appropriate next steps,” a spokesperson for Attorney General Karl Racine said in an email to me on Tuesday.

Problem: Racine endorsed Silverman even before the Democratic primary. Should he recuse himself from any further action in the case? Historically the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not been interested in prosecuting campaign finance or elections fraud in the District. How, then, will the perpetrators be brought to justice?

This is all such a mess. It’s not like we couldn’t see this coming. I hinted at the potential irony earlier this summer when I first focused on the candidates’ petition-gathering and mentioned that Williams was a co-chair of Allen’s campaign. Couldn’t he, with his experience, have guided his chosen candidate away from this disaster?

For months after the Williams ballot fight, many of his supporters gave Brizill the evil eye whenever they saw her, signaling that they might have wanted to do bad things to her in some alley on the side. Undoubtedly, some people may see her as the abettor of Silverman’s effort.

“I don’t agree with Silverman on many things,” said Brizill, “but if she and her attorney had not held the [elections] board’s feet to the fire, they would have found some ways to wiggle out of their decision, talking about how they wanted to enfranchise voters and candidates.”

That goal is admirable, even if the current process makes it difficult, in my view, to realize it. I have covered District politics for more than two decades, watching as individuals with good intentions and some with good resumes — like Allen and Traci Hughes — step up, hoping to serve their community. The ballot-qualification process has slammed the door in their faces. If Williams had not been such a popular mayor with a substantial campaign war chest, he would not have been able to recover from the kick of the Elections Board.

Brizill said she has requested a copy of the entire file related to the Silverman-Allen challenge. She said this latest petition episode “puts the spotlight” on the Elections Board — “how it does its work” — and “the need for periodic reviews of existing laws and regulations.” Among other things, she said the board should engage in more proactive monitoring of the petition-circulation process; for instance, it could review sheets from campaigns before they are formally submitted. She suggested the board mandate attendance at training tutorials, place “detailed instructions” on its website, and require firms engaged in circulating petitions, particularly those from outside the city, to be both registered and bonded.

In the fall, the DC Council will discuss possible repeal of Initiative 77, the lowering of the voting age to 16, and online voting. All of those present opportunities for the council to consider election reforms, said Brizill. If no one wants to heed her call for change, those measures could certainly serve as gateways for even more election fiascos.


jonetta rose barras is a DC-based freelance writer and host of TV show The Barras Report. She can be reached at thebarrasreport@gmail.com.

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