By Peter Jamison and Fenit Nirappil
The troubled neighborhoods of Southeast Washington witnessed a historic plunge in turnout during the District’s primary election last week, with voters showing up to the polls at less than half the already low rates seen elsewhere in the city.
Fewer than 8 percent of registered voters in Ward 8 — home to the poorest and most violent sections of the nation’s capital — cast a ballot June 19. It was the first time any ward’s turnout in a mayoral election dropped to single digits in nearly three decades of data available from the D.C. Board of Elections, a Washington Post analysis found.
The indifference of largely African American voters east of the Anacostia River contrasts with previous decades, when the same voters formed a vocal constituency and a cornerstone in the political coalitions of leaders such as former mayor Marion Barry Jr.
Among them are registration figures that may be inflated because of federal restrictions on purging voter rolls and a lack of interest in primary and municipal elections in cities dominated by Democrats.
Less easy to explain, McDonald said, is the indifference of voters in troubled neighborhoods, who have ample reason to challenge the status quo.
“Is it because it’s not the right candidates who are coming forward to articulate that message to appeal to these voters?” he said. “Or is it that they’ve become so alienated from the whole process that they throw up their hands and go on with their lives?”
By important demographic measures, Southeast Washington is a photographic negative of the prosperity that has transformed much of the District.
There have been 38 murders in Ward 8 so far this year, a 65 percent increase over the same period in 2017. Unemployment in December was nearly 12.8 percent, compared with 5.4 percent citywide. Nearly half of Ward 8 children lived in poverty in 2016, compared with less than 3 percent of children across the city in Ward 3, according to figures compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Combined with the eastward march of gentrification through a city that has always struggled with combustible divisions of race and class, the social problems that linger in Southeast Washington have led to widespread cynicism, particularly among younger residents, said Linda Softli of the D.C. chapter of the League of Women Voters.
“I just could not believe it. They’re very disillusioned, because they do not see any future for themselves here,” said Softli, who said she has tried, with little success, to register voters at community events and churches in Southeast Washington. “Most of them say, ‘Vote for what? It’s not going to do us any good. Nobody cares about us.’ ”
Leaving the Congress Heights Metro stop on a recent weekday, Ricardo Anthony said that Southeast Washington needs more affordable housing and that he hopes the planned construction of a practice facility for the Washington Wizards on the old campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital could spur economic development in Ward 8.
But Anthony, a 36-year-old registered voter, said he couldn’t remember the last time he cast a ballot in a mayoral election.
“We are the people, but our voice don’t really count,” he said. “We vote people in, and they do what they want to do.”
In Anacostia, Debra McIntosh said she was sick on the day of the election but could not say for certain she would have gone to the poll had she been healthy.
The 54-year-old, who cleans a nursing home, said she is fed up with a lack of jobs and youth programs in Southeast Washington, and has resigned herself to seeing men and women sleeping on the benches where she waits for her bus. She said she worries that rising rents in the District will force her to move to Maryland.
“It’s, like, a hopeless cause,” McIntosh said. “Why go out and vote when nothing changes?”
White, the Ward 8 council member, declined to comment.
Some worry that voter apathy could breed a cycle of disenfranchisement in Wards 7 and 8 as the candidates turn to other parts of the city to build winning coalitions and, in turn, pay less attention to the issues that voters in Southeast Washington care about.
The results of recent elections show that politicians have become less reliant on votes there to win citywide office. Bowser drew just 7,322 votes from Wards 7 and 8 last week, compared with Gray’s 25,020 votes from those wards in his winning 2010 mayoral primary and 12,526 for former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in 2006.
Three of the four at-large D.C. Council members — Elissa Silverman, Robert C. White Jr. and David Grosso — also drew disproportionately small portions of their winning coalitions from Wards 7 and 8 compared with their predecessors.
When he unseated former D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange in 2016, White drew 13 percent of his votes from Wards 7 and 8. Orange received 43 percent of his support from those wards in his last successful primary campaign, in 2012.
White said that he thinks lower-income voters have effectively opted out of a government they don’t believe is working on their behalf.
The District has adopted measures over the last several years aimed at giving a boost to those left behind during its economic boom, including $100 million per year to create or preserve affordable housing, the redevelopment of the shelter system for homeless families and a paid parental-leave policy that is among the country’s most generous.
But White said that more needs to be done and that the city’s initiatives for giving a hand to its have-nots must be articulated in a clear vision that voters can understand.
“For many people, the path and trajectory that we have been on has not been helping,” White said. “I think that unless and until people see sort of foundational shifts, they are not going to reengage with the government.