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Anonymous Senate Hold Plays Into Extra Cost for D.C. Election

The District of Columbia will be scrambling this spring to organize and pay for a special election to replace a D.C. councilmember who recently resigned, due in part to an unnamed Senator.

The drawn-out chaos and the cost could have been prevented, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) charged, had it not been for an anonymous Senate hold placed on legislation in the previous Congress that would have shortened the time between a vacancy on the D.C. Council and when a special election could be held to fill it.

Norton’s bill would have changed the waiting time from 114 days to 70 days.

The measure moved swiftly through the House, but an unnamed Senator blocked action on the bill in that chamber. Norton suspects it was a Senator looking for political leverage on an unrelated issue.

The bill garnered little attention at the time, but its failure in the Senate could cost the city in the wake of the resignation of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., who left office last week after pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 in government money and filing false tax returns.

Norton said the timing makes it impossible to hold a special election for Thomas’ seat to coincide with the April 3 primary election. Had her bill passed, that date would have been an option.

The expense of opening polling places, getting out the machines and printing ballots for a separate election day on May 15 to vote for Thomas’ replacement will cost the city about $318,000, said D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics spokeswoman Alysoun McLaughlin.

“No one could have anticipated this, but that’s what special elections are for,” Norton told Roll Call. “The city has every reason to be miffed.”

Norton plans to introduce a new version of the bill and believes its chances of passage are strong — but that won’t help this year.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee with jurisdiction over D.C. affairs, supported the measure when he was ranking member of the panel in the previous Congress. And with the Senate no longer allowing its members to stall legislation anonymously in the 112th Congress, Norton thinks any lawmaker would be “embarrassed” to publicly hold back such a bill.

“And with the major problem of an arrest of a public official in the District and the classic situation where you don’t want people to be left without representation, we should be able to get this through [by unanimous consent] in both Houses,” Norton continued.

But while she and her staff explored fast-tracking the legislation, discussions with the city determined that no matter how quickly the bill moved, it would not be possible to have it go into effect to allow a special election to coincide with the April 3 primary.

And in any case, it appears that recently enacted election laws will require Norton to revise her original plan to designate a 70-day waiting period.

During the past several months, two laws — one federal law relating to federal elections and one local law relating to D.C. elections — were passed that now require officials to mail ballots to military voters overseas at least 45 days in advance of an election. McLaughlin says 70 days is too short a window in which to prepare for a special election and still meet the new mandates.

“The additional 15 days from the original 30-day timetable shortens the window where we can qualify candidates for the ballot, so it doesn’t appear we can do 70 days any longer,” McLaughlin explained. “We’re in conversations with Norton’s office and with the council about what time periods would work and how long it takes to qualify candidates for the ballot and circulate petitions.”

Norton is also exploring other options to shorten the window.

One possibility is placing a referendum question on the April primary ballot. Voters could approve a change, subject to a possible reversal by Congress, which could overturn any referendum vote.

But there is also a problem with the referendum idea.

McLaughlin told Roll Call that regulations governing D.C. elections state that such a referendum may only be placed on a ballot if it is certified at least 90 days in advance of Election Day. With 83 days to go, the cutoff for the upcoming primary election has passed.

The referendum could be on ballots for the May special election or the November general election.

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