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House Backs D.C. Special Elections Bill

The House backed legislation this evening that would shorten the window between a vacancy in a local office and when a special election may be held to fill it.

The bill passed on a voice vote.

“Today [is a] small change to everyone except to the people of the District of Columbia, who consistently have to live under a rule that costs the voters and the residents of the District of Columbia … enormous additional dollars,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees D.C. affairs.

This is the second time Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has pursued such legislation, which would apply to unexpected D.C. Council, mayoral and attorney general vacancies.

In the previous Congress, she introduced a bill that would have changed the waiting time from 114 days to 70 days. It passed the House without 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 even 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 voting machines and printing ballots for a separate election 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.

The bill endorsed by the House today is different from the version passed in the 111th Congress in at least one respect: Rather than forcing all special elections to be held no more than 70 days from the announcement of a council vacancy, it says a special election would have to be held “at least 70 days and not more than 174 days” following a Councilmembers’ departure.

The wider window would allow the board of elections more flexibility in scheduling a special election to coincide with an already scheduled one, saving the city money. It would also ensure that special elections are not held on dates when there would be conflicts with voters who have religious obligations.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where it will not likely face the fate of the 111th Congress version.

“I appreciate that the House passed this non-controversial bill today, as it did two years ago,” Norton said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “I have already begun working with the Senate to get this bill signed into law quickly, now that an anonymous hold, which killed this bill last Congress, is no longer permitted in the Senate.”

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