A polling location in the Courthouse neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia.

A polling location in the Courthouse neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia.

We’re just 14 days away from Election Day, and some voters in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have already cast their ballots. Which races and issues are top-of-mind for residents? While the presidential election looms large, congressional and D.C. Council races are also on the ballot, plus ballot measures on issues ranging from sports betting to psychedelic plants.

We sit down with The Washington Post’s Fenit Nirappil to talk about the races, the issues and where voter turnout stands so far.

Produced by Cydney Grannan

Guests

  • Fenit Nirappil Local politics reporter, Washington Post; @FenitN

Transcript

  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned into the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, how big is the partisan divide in Virginia? And is it reflective of the nation right now? We sit down with chairs of Virginia's Republican and Democratic parties.

  • 12:00:16

    KOJO NNAMDIBut first, Election Day is two weeks away, and thousands in our region -- including yours truly -- have already cast their ballot by voting early or by mail. So, what are the issues driving voters to the polls? Joining us now is Fenit Nirappil, local politics reporter for the Washington Post. Fenit, always good to talk to you.

  • 12:00:37

    FENIT NIRAPPILIt's good to be on. It's not an election season without an appearance on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

  • 12:00:42

    NNAMDIAnd not an election season without a conversation with Fenit. Fenit, I'm getting sick of hearing this election is unlike any other, but let's face it, that's where we are. Early and mail-in voting have been popular in the region. How many people are taking advantage of these options?

  • 12:00:58

    NIRAPPILOh, we are seeing a surge of voting in the Washington region ahead of Election Day. It's not so much the November election, anymore. It's really the fall election cycle. So, I've got some numbers for you. Here in Washington, D.C. we've seen 102,000 ballots mailed in so far. That compares to 25,000 special and absentee ballots in 2016 and 100,000 early votes cast in all of 2016, and early voting has even started in D.C. yet. In Virginia, we've got about 1.5 million votes cast already compared to about 567,000 all of 2016. And, in Maryland, we have about 580,000 early ballots submitted compared to about 170,00 in all of 2016.

  • 12:01:49

    NNAMDII got to tell you, I've been around my neighborhood looking for drop boxes until I found one and was able to drop my ballot in it. But, Fenit, when does early voting in person begin for D.C., Maryland and Virginia? Should we expect to see long lines and other issues that we've heard about in other states?

  • 12:02:07

    NIRAPPILRight. One of the reasons we're seeing Maryland, Virginia and D.C. expand so many early voting options is because we're expecting to see a huge turnout on Election Day. So, that's why you're getting drop boxes and early voting sites set up around the region. So, in Virginia, the voters have already had early voting options since late September. And that's going to continue running through the Saturday before Election Day. So, early voting starts in Maryland and D.C. next week. In Maryland, that's Monday, in D.C., that's Tuesday, and those early voting in-person sites are going to be available through Election Day.

  • 12:02:46

    NNAMDIOverall, what are we expecting in terms of voter turnout in D.C., Maryland and Virginia? How does it compare to 2016?

  • 12:02:54

    NIRAPPILSo, we saw significant voting turnout in the primary election this season in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. And if the early voting figures that we're seeing hold, we're on track to see record-busting turnout in the Washington region, even while we're in the middle of a pandemic.

  • 12:03:14

    NIRAPPILNow, of course, we're not quite -- because the nature of the election has changed so much, it may turn out that these early voting numbers aren't necessarily predictive of the kind of turnout that we're going to see. But, so far, based on the signs, we're looking to see a big chunk of the Washington region electorate come out this fall.

  • 12:03:33

    NNAMDIFenit, generally, what are the biggest issues driving voters here to the polls?

  • 12:03:38

    NIRAPPILWell, one of the things that we hear consistently from voters is that Donald Trump is driving them to the polls. Now, in the Washington Region, this is a heavily Democratic region, so many of the people driven to the polls are opponents and critics of President Trump.

  • 12:03:55

    NIRAPPILBut the actual races that are in where the outcome isn't as clear-cut, that's the local races around the Washington region that are where the stakes are very much about bread and butter issues that affect every constituent. So, you have an at-large race, an at-large council race for D.C. voters that will determine the direction of the city's nearly all-Democratic government.

  • 12:04:22

    NIRAPPILIn Maryland, you have several key ballot measures, both in Montgomery County and statewide. And, in Virginia, you have several contested congressional races. Even though Joe Biden is favored in the presidential contest in Virginia, but it's not at the realm of possibility that President Trump would win there. And there's a statewide ballot measure regarding the districting that sounds a little technical, but it has implications for the partisan control of Virginia over the next decade.

  • 12:04:56

    NNAMDIYeah, we'll be talking about that later in this broadcast. But you mentioned the D.C. at-large council race, which has at least 24 and at least 23 active candidates, and the importance of that race. What does having so many candidates on the ballot mean for the outcome? Does it make it difficult for voters to get a clear sense of their choices?

  • 12:05:17

    NIRAPPILYeah, so, in D.C., the most crowded race on the ballot is for two seats representing the entire city on the D.C. council. So, because of the advent of public campaign financing in D.C. and eased out ballot access requirements, you have one of the largest fields for at-large D.C. council seats in modern history.

  • 12:05:38

    NIRAPPILSo, what that means is that whoever wins the race can win with a tiny sliver of the electorate, perhaps as low as 10 percent. So, the way this race works is voters can choose two candidates, two out of the 23 candidates. Robert White -- who's the Democratic incumbent and the only Democrat in the field -- is considered to be widely favored, since this is an overwhelmingly Democratic city. And so that leaves the rest of the 21 active candidates in the field competing for that second seat.

  • 12:06:13

    NNAMDIWell, you say Robert White is the only Democrat on the ballot, and that is true, but frankly, all of the members of the D.C. council and all of the people who are running in this race are basically Democrat. Some of them have chosen to run as independent, because that's what the law in D.C. says they have to do. So, when you say this race will determine the partisan tilt of the council, what does this mean in terms of the issues?

  • 12:06:39

    NIRAPPILRight. So, the D.C. government is essentially all Democrats and independents who dropped their Democratic Party affiliation so that they could win seats that are reserved for non-Democrats. So, the divide that you see on the D.C. council is among competing wings of the party. One is more moderate, business-friendly and skeptical of higher taxes and increased spending.

  • 12:07:04

    NIRAPPILAnd the other is the left wing of the council, which tends to lean more progressive, and is more critical of the influence of business and money in local politics, and is pushing for D.C. government to take what they describe as bolder steps to increase taxes on the wealthy in order to increase the spending to address the vast income in racial inequality we see in the nation's capital.

  • 12:07:32

    NNAMDIYou conducted a really great candidates debate with the at-large council members. It was a challenging time for you, but you did very well, in my view, on it. But explain to our listeners how just one change on this council can tilt the council towards the more progressive members of the council dominating.

  • 12:08:00

    NIRAPPILSure. So, for example, there was a very close eight-to-five vote over the summer to raise income taxes on the wealthiest D.C. residents. So, right now, you have several candidates who are opposed to higher taxes on the wealthy and several candidates who are supportive of it. So, the winner of this race can determine whether D.C. would implement policy such as an income tax increase on the highest earners in order to fund programs such as violence prevention and mental health treatment in D.C. schools.

  • 12:08:33

    NNAMDISo, this is big. How have the mayor and the chairman of the council -- Mayor Muriel Bowser and the chairman of the council, Phil Mendelson -- have they weighed in on this contest, at all?

  • 12:08:44

    NIRAPPILSo, Mayor Bowser has stayed out of this at-large council race. She's had a bit of a mixed record in her endorsements in council races before. And her attempt to unseat a sitting at-large councilmember, Elissa Silverman ended backfiring for her in 2018. That said, some in her orbit -- including her former campaign chairman, Bill Lightfoot -- have gravitated around Marcus Goodwin. He's a 31-year-old, business-friendly candidate who's a native Washingtonian, and is running, making the point that the best way to address racial inequality in the city is to create more economic opportunity and to pursue policy such as down payment home assistance.

  • 12:09:27

    NIRAPPILCouncil Chairman Phil Mendelson, on the other hand, he hasn't made an endorsement, but he's made his intentions very clear that he does not want to see Ed Lazear win the contest. Ed Lazear is the cofounder of D.C.'s left-leaning Budget Advocacy Group, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, and he ran against Mendelson in the 2018 primary for the council chairman office. So, Ed Lazear's considered the favorite of progressive, left-leaning and labor unions in similar organizations. And he's one of the candidates who the left in D.C. politics have coalesced behind, because they seem him as an ally on good government and progressive policy issues.

  • 12:10:10

    NNAMDIAnd he's been endorsed by at-large councilmember Elissa Silverman, who worked with him at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. There's also a former councilmember running, Vincent Orange. Where does he come down in this race?

  • 12:10:23

    NIRAPPILSure. So, Vincent Orange was a longtime member of the council. He represented Ward 5 between 1999 and 2007, and then he was a Democratic at-large member from 2011 to 2016 when he lost his primary reelection bid to Robert White.

  • 12:10:39

    NIRAPPILSo, Vincent Orange is mounting a comeback as an Independent candidate. And he argues that voters need someone like him who've been on the council during tough times, as the D.C. council figures out how the city should bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic and address the big budget holes we're seeing as a result of it. So, Vincent Orange, none of his former council colleagues have endorsed him, but he has won some support from business groups such as the D.C. Association of Realtors and Apartment Buildings Owners and Managers Association.

  • 12:11:16

    NNAMDIAnd, of course, one of the people who's running, and one of the reasons this race is so wide open, is because councilmember Grasso has stepped down, and he has endorsed a former employee of his in his campaign office to run. And she's been endorsed by the Washington Post. Talk about her.

  • 12:11:35

    NIRAPPILSure. Christina Henderson worked for David Grasso as the director of his committee on education. She's since gone on to a career on The Hill, where she's working for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. She's running as something of the middle-ground candidate for the top-tier of this race. She does support progressive policy priorities such as increasing taxes on the wealthiest. But she wouldn't go as far as Ed Lazear on other issues. She doesn't want to see significant cuts to the D.C. Police Department, for example.

  • 12:12:10

    NNAMDIOkay. We've got to take a short break. I hope I have not been unfair to the other 21 people who are running for this race that we have not mentioned. But Fenit, I'd like you to stay on for a little, while because when we come back, I'd like to discuss the Board of Education race. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:47

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We'll be talking shortly with the chairpersons of the Virginia Republican and Democratic Parties. This is all a part of the election series that we're doing here on this broadcast. Right now, we're talking with Fenit Nirappil, who is a local politics reporter for the Washington Post.

  • 12:13:04

    NNAMDIFenit, D.C.'s board of education also has races on the ballot. Education is on the minds of many D.C. voters, given the current pandemic and the debates on when and how to reopen schools. What should we know about those races, and how should voters educate themselves on the candidates?

  • 12:13:19

    NIRAPPILYeah, the D.C. State Board of Education is a fascinating body in D.C. Since the mayoral control of D.C. schools started in the mid-2000s, the State Board of Education has had a very limited role in the operation of the D.C. Public School system. That said, the members of the D.C. State Board of Education have an important bully pulpit when it comes to education issues in the nation's capital.

  • 12:13:44

    NIRAPPILSo, you see a lot of divides among this field in terms of how people -- in terms of whether the candidates support mayoral control of D.C. schools and whether they support the mayor's approach to reopening the balance. So, I'd highly recommend that viewers look at the voter guide on these races assembled by my colleague Perry Stein, if you Google Perry Stein and D.C. State Board of Education.

  • 12:14:13

    NNAMDIYes. There's one ballot measure that D.C. voters will get to weigh in on, and it has to do with psychedelic plants. What is that?

  • 12:14:20

    NIRAPPILRight. So, D.C. voters are going to see Initiative 81 on the ballot. So, this would instruct law enforcement in D.C. to treat possession of psychedelic mushrooms and similar drugs as a lowest possible priority. So, it's not quite legalizing, saying you can buy these drugs in stores, or that there would be no criminal penalties.

  • 12:14:42

    NIRAPPILBut it's essentially a way of allowing people to use these drugs, which the proponents claim have a therapeutic value for people suffering PTSD and other conditions, without fear of criminal prosecution. So, this is a measure that's been endorsed by the local Democratic Party and has been spearheaded by groups and advocates who have been pushing similar ballot measures in places like Denver, Colorado.

  • 12:15:10

    NNAMDIAnd, quickly, Maryland also has ballot measures at the state level. What are they?

  • 12:15:14

    NIRAPPILOne would legalize sports betting, which is currently legalized in D.C. and has been legalized in Virginia. This is a measure that proponents hope would send more money to education. There's also a ballot measure in Maryland that would affect the legislators' role in the budget process in D.C. It's opposed by Governor Larry Hogan and supported by Democrats in the state legislature.

  • 12:15:42

    NNAMDIFenit Nirappil is a local reporter for the Washington Post. Fenit, always a pleasure. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:15:48

    NIRAPPILIt's great to be on.

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