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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Another reason an on-campus ANC race tied 1-1? Incorrect ballots

Several AU students were accidentally given ballots for the wrong neighborhood commission seat in the November election

Diego Carney was excited to vote in the 2022 midterm elections. It wasn’t just his first time voting — it was his first time voting for himself. 

As a write-in candidate for ANC 3E07, one of American University’s two new on-campus Advisory Neighborhood Commission seats, Carney, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs, went to the early voting center at the University of the District of Columbia to cast his ballot. 

ANCs are nonpartisan, unpaid elected bodies that make recommendations to the D.C. Council on neighborhood issues ranging from liquor licenses to bike lanes. ANC 3E, which includes AU, is centered in Tenleytown and Friendship Heights.

But after filling out his ballot, Carney noticed something was off: he had been given a ballot for ANC 3E08, AU’s other ANC district. The two seats were created during redistricting after the 2020 census, and this was the first election they were in place. 

The same thing happened to Micah Rogers, the other write-in candidate for ANC 3E07, who is also a freshman in SPA: he went to vote for himself, only to realize the ballot he had been given wasn’t for the district in which he was running. 

Carney and Rogers were both write-in candidates because no one formally registered to run for either ANC seat. The ballots were labeled either 3E07 or 3E08, but with no candidate names printed on them, it was harder to tell at first glance if the ballot was correct.

“It’s good that I even noticed it at all,” Rogers said. “It would’ve been really easy to miss.”

Both candidates were given new ballots and successfully voted for themselves. Neither said they felt the mixups were a big deal. But in a race with such low turnout — a 1-1 tie led to Carney winning on a coin flip — a single incorrect ballot that went unnoticed could have changed the result. 

Not everyone caught the error in time. Addison Zhang, a freshman in the School of International Service, wrote in Carney’s name on Election Day. But it wasn’t until after the results showing a 1-1 tie were posted that he realized he filled out a ballot for 3E08, the wrong single-member district. Carney said the same thing happened to at least two other people he knows. 

Those votes would not have changed the outcome of the election, since Carney won the coin toss. But they would have if Rogers won.

The extent of the mixups has not been previously reported.

“There could have been a different outcome — if it wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t meant to be,” Carney said. “In this case it happened to be, so I’m excited and happy that I get this opportunity.”

An issue of address matching

The mixups stem from the way street addresses are matched with ANC districts, said Nick Jacobs, the spokesperson for the D.C. Board of Elections. 

Typically, voters are placed into a district based on their address — each one corresponds to a single-member district, which is one seat on a neighborhood’s commission and typically includes about 2,000 residents. But this gets tricky with AU’s newly-drawn electoral map. Previously, nearly all of campus was in the same single-member district. But now, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW is split evenly between 3E07 and 3E08.

The on-campus districts make little sense geographically. Letts Hall is in 3E07, while Anderson Hall, to which it’s connected, is in 3E08. McDowell and Leonard halls are split at the bridge that joins them. On East Campus, Constitution and Federal halls are in 3E07, while Duber Hall is in 3E08. 

The map design itself, though, isn’t necessarily a barrier to voting. In theory, as long as students included their residence hall in their address when they registered to vote, they’d be given a ballot that corresponds with the district in which they live. 

But that didn’t happen. Carney, Rogers and Zhang told The Eagle they included their room number and hall name when they registered to vote.

“It’s such a specific problem to have, like it barely affects anyone,” Rogers said. “But it does affect the ANC race.”

It’s not clear exactly why the voter registration system defaulted to putting people who should have been in 3E07 into 3E08, instead of, say, the other way around. But because of a rule requiring write-in candidates to submit a form affirming their candidacy for a specific seat, any votes cast for Carney or Rogers in 3E08 were simply discarded and had no impact on the outcome of that race, Jacobs said. Votes cast for other offices on the same ballot were counted.

Jacobs said the BOE was not aware anyone had received an incorrect ballot until The Eagle presented him with its findings. 

In an interview, Jacobs said the mixups should be viewed in the larger context of running an election based on maps born from a delayed and intensely-litigated 2020 census. Election workers were under tremendous strain, he said, especially given the false claims of voter fraud nationally that consumed the 2020 election.

“There were myriad problems for jurisdictions not just here in the District but around the country to implement new lines and ensure lines were drawn correctly,” he said. “Were there going to be problems? Yes.”

He emphasized that the BOE instructs voters to check they got the correct ballot before voting, and that poll workers are trained to tell each voter to ensure their ballot is the right one.

How to write the address?

The ballot mixups are part of a broader problem of miscommunication between AU and the BOE, said Jacob Wilson, a co-founder of AU Votes, the University’s campaign to help students vote in D.C. or their home states.

Dozens of pages of email records between AU and the BOE, obtained by The Eagle via the Freedom of Information Act, show months of confusion and back-and-forth questions over how on-campus students should write their address when registering to vote in D.C. 

Some of the proposed solutions included using a geographic address instead of a numerical one — north of New Mexico Avenue NW and one block east, for example — or simply writing the room number, residence hall name and “American University,” without including the campus address. At one point, there was talk of using an entirely different address on Nebraska Avenue that’s tied to part of East Campus.

Just six weeks before Election Day, Wilson acknowledged in an email to Jacobs and Marissa Corrente, the BOE’s registrar of voters, that “we don’t have a process in place right now” to ensure students are registered in the correct single-member district.  

AU ultimately instructed students to include their room number and residence hall name along with “American University” and the campus address. 

But the records show discussion over the correct address formatting was revived as recently as earlier this month.

AU provided only a written statement in response to multiple requests for an interview.

“We encourage our campus community to make their vote count, and we provide helpful information on the voting process through AU Votes for those who wish to vote in their home state or in D.C.,” wrote Jasmine Pelaez, AU’s internal communications manager, in an email to The Eagle. The statement noted that the AU Votes website includes an example of how to register to vote in D.C., with a specific dorm address included.

“They could do a lot more”

On Election Day, Wilson tabled on the quad with a handful of student volunteers, spreading the word that students who hadn’t voted in their home states could register and vote same-day in D.C. Of the dozen or so students he talked to who hadn’t voted, none of them knew they had that option. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” Wilson said of the confusion surrounding efforts to help students vote. 

But there are steps to make the process easier that he hopes BOE and University officials will take before the next election. 

“AU and other college campuses could work with the BOE to create lists of eligible voters based on students who live in their residence halls,” he said. “They could do a lot more to partner with the BOE to make sure those voter lists are updated more regularly.”

The bottom line, Wilson said, is the need for a better way of communicating information clearly to students. 

“It could have been an email prior to Election Day to let students know their rights,” he said. “The University can and should inform students of their rights as voters.”

This article was edited by Abigail Hatting, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Luna Jinks.

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