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Panel Approves Plan to Change D.C. Council Voting

A House committee approved a bill today that would shorten the window between the opening of a vacancy on the D.C. Council and when a special election can be held to fill it.

The measure, approved by a voice vote of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is intended to save the District of Columbia both time and money.

This is the second time Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has pursued such legislation.

In the previous Congress, she introduced a bill that would have changed the waiting time from 114 days to 70 days. It swiftly passed through the House with little controversy but stalled in the Senate when an unnamed lawmaker blocked action. Norton suspects it was a Senator looking to gain political leverage on an unrelated issue.

Few paid much attention at the time, but the political situation in D.C. has made the legislation more urgent.

In January, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. resigned after pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 in government money and filing false tax returns.

Had Norton’s bill been enacted last year, a special election for Thomas’ seat to coincide with the April 3 primary election would have been possible.

The expense of opening polling places, setting up 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.

“I do want to point out that this is why we want to make it possible for matters like this not to have to have come to the Congress,” Norton said at today’s markup, alluding to her perennial effort to gain more autonomy for the District of Columbia.

The bill that won approval today, with the support of Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Mayor Vincent Gray, is different in at least one respect from the legislation the House passed last fall.

The window has been widened to allow for a special election to take place “at least 70 days and not more than 174 days.”

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

The wider window would also allow for easier accommodation of voters with religious obligations and gives the elections board more time to prepare.

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