Candidates for DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) candidates have to file petitions by Wednesday to get on the ballot. But there's a good chance nobody has qualified for the ballot in many districts near universities, because the current rules make it almost impossible for students: living off-campus in the summer would disqualify them and few students are even around during the summer to sign the petitions.
ANC candidates have a one-month period to pick up their ballot petitions, gather signatures from 25 of their prospective constituents, and then hand those signatures in on August 8. If a candidate’s signatures are deemed valid, their name will be placed on the ballot for the general election on November 6.
For many candidates, gathering 25 signatures is as simple as knocking a few blocks worth of doors, or standing outside a large apartment complex in their Single Member District. But for college students whose districts consist solely or mostly of dorms, getting 25 signatures while many of their potential constituents are away during the summer collection period is next to impossible.
Student ANC districts allow for college students to have a voice
Across the District, 40 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) cover 299 single-member districts, with each district encompassing about 2,000 residents. A handful of those seats are what have come to be known as “student seats,” and are typically occupied by a student at a nearby university, because most or all of the residences in the district are student housing.
Student districts include 2A07 and 2A08 in Foggy Bottom by the George Washington University, 2E04 and 2E08 by Georgetown University, 3D07 by American University, and 5A04 by the Catholic University of America. A handful of other districts — including 1B10 by Howard University and 2A01 by George Washington University — have student housing and have previously been represented by students, but are currently represented by non-students.
The makeup of these districts allow college students to have a voice representing their peers in local government. That's a unique opportunity considering that college students make up a large portion of residents of some neighborhoods but are under-represented in local decision-making.
Student commissioners face distinct challenges
When Peter Sacco, a then-GW sophomore, ran for the newly-created Single Member District 2A08 in 2012, he had to run as a write-in because so few college students were registered to vote in GW’s dorms and many of them were not in town during the July to August signature collection period. By the spring of 2014, with graduation looming the following year, Sacco sought to find an underclassman to fill his seat in the 2014 election — but with no student willing to run, he ended up running for re-election, once again as a write-in.
In May 2015, Sacco graduated and resigned his seat as he moved out of student housing. He was unable to find a student to fill his seat after nearly a year of searching. The next month, he finally connected with a student willing to run for his seat — me.
Sacco explained to me what running for the ANC as a college student would entail. I wouldn’t be able to study abroad, and I’d have to live in GW’s overpriced summer housing to maintain residency in my district year-round. The only housing my district contained was seven dorms and seven Greek Life townhouses, along with the president of the university’s house.
Additionally, few students knew that the ANC existed — so while I could tackle my own projects, I’d also have to figure out how to get more students involved in the process. Plus, I'd have to contend with neighbors who thought that I was a patsy for university interests.
(Not) getting on the ballot
In September 2015, I ran unopposed to fill the vacant 2A08 seat, collecting the required number of signatures and automatically winning the election since nobody else filed. But in July 2016, when I filed to run for re-election, I quickly ran into the same roadblock that Sacco and other student ANC commissioners have run into. Since students didn’t live on campus during the summer, it was impossible to find 25 people to sign my petition.
My only recourse was to run as a write-in in November, which I did — winning re-election along with two other student commissioners (in 2E04 and 5A04) who had also run for re-election as write-ins because they had been stymied by the same signature requirement.
This year, the same challenge is playing out in ANC elections. Taylor Berlin, a rising junior at American University, represents 3D07, a seat that until she ran this spring had been vacant for more than two years. She told university media that she “kind of created my own voter population” because so few students had previously been registered to vote in her district.
She’s not alone: my successor, James Harnett, a rising junior who filled the 2A08 seat after I graduated in December, is running for re-election as a write-in this fall because of the lack of registered voters who live on GW’s campus during the summer.
There’s a way to make it easier for student commissioners to run
A simple fix can encourage greater political efficacy among students and make it easier to run. The ANC ballot petition signature collection period has taken place for a 30-day period from July to August for the last few elections cycles. But that’s not actually a requirement that’s baked into DC law, which says that ANC petitions “shall be made available by the Board [of Elections] no later than the 120th calendar day before an election” for ANC.
That means that the Board of Elections could move up its date for ballot circulation to the spring, allowing for better ballot access for students and for other commission candidates who may have trouble finding voters during the dog days of summer.