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Opinion | The DC Attorney General Race is in a state of emergency

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Ron Moten is a co-founder of Do not mute DC.

As a native Washingtonian who has been involved in DC politics for 25 years, I have seen all sorts of candidates, political disturbances, and underdogs come through. But out of all my experiences, the removal of Kenyan R. McDuffie by the DC Board of Elections from the vote on the DC Attorney General race is among the most horrific examples of interference in democracy.

Residents and voters in DC are upset, disturbed and loudly opposed to his removal – especially black and brown communities and voters living east of the river. Honestly, it feels like their votes – ours – are being muted because the candidate who has been in the trenches with many of us has been deprived of his opportunity to compete for a position that affects so many of us.

The reality is that even with its good intentions, the language of eligibility for the DC Attorney General position is ambiguous. For that reason alone, the Electoral Commission should have given McDuffie access to the ballot, as it did in 2014 for Lateefah Williams, a political consultant when she ran for DC Attorney General. Two campaign cycles later, the DC Board of Elections changed the tune and read the criteria differently for McDuffie.

It seems obvious that without emergency legislation passed by the DC Council, our democratic process and our voters will be deprived of the right to vote.

DC law allows a law professor, regardless of whether he or she has courtroom experience, to run for this position. Still, a graduate who draws up, reviews, interprets, and advocates for the actual laws that govern our city, right? That’s ridiculous. If McDuffie had not been challenged by as an opponent, he would have been on the ballot. He was certified by the DC Board of Elections in September. But two weeks before voting was to be completed and sent to voters, the leading candidate, after seven months on the campaign track, has been knocked off the ballot due to a technicality afterwards. A broad and open interpretation of the law would allow voters to decide which lawyer is the best lawyer to serve them.

It’s not that McDuffie is not a lawyer. He did not come from great jurisprudence and does not have deep pockets. He came from the inner city of DC, from a humble beginning. He started his career as a postal worker and then went on to study law. As a lawyer, he has spent his career in the public service, working as a prosecutor in Prince George’s County and as a civil rights lawyer for the Department of Justice. McDuffie has spent the past decade writing district laws, analyzing the legality and impact of proposed legislation, and advising his fellow councilors on the constitution, legality, and substance of the law.

What kind of message does it send to kick McDuffie off the ballot to the people we are trying to reach with the Near Act legislation he created, which is funded through and executed by the same office he is now trying to head, the Attorney General Office? This law was meant to help get people on the right track, and tell them that if you do things the right way, the government and the people of DC will help make sure you do it. Same for the Ira Act, which McDuffie authored, and which helps residents of DC convicted of the racist law of mass imprisonment that helped destroy my community by taking lots of black men away from their families. How do you think this affects all those who have returned home and been reintegrated into our society and are asking for a second chance at justice and fairness when one of their leading proponents cannot get justice and fairness?

Let me be clear, this is not about being a McDuffie supporter. It is about letting the system of democracy run its course. Let the voters decide.

The DC Council should adopt emergency legislation specifying the minimum qualifications to be eligible to stand as attorney general. In drafting the law establishing the independently elected position of attorney general, the council came up with a set of minimum qualifications designed to ensure experience, affiliation and commitment to DC. When the Council adopted the law in 2010, it was intended that the minimum qualifications should be interpreted broadly with the understanding that the public will have the opportunity to assess the qualifications of the nominees. The council never intended to exclude councilors who are lawyers who apply their legal competencies, knowledge and experience to the work of drafting and analyzing the law.

Eight former and current councilors who voted for the underlying law – President Phil Mendelson (D), the original sponsor; Councilor Vincent C. Gray (D Section 7); Councilor Mary M. Cheh (D Division 3); and former councilors Yvette M. Alexander, Michael A. Brown, David Catania and Tommy Wells and former council chairman Kwame Brown – submitted a letter to the court in opposition to the election commission’s decision and in support of McDuffie meeting the language of the law regarding minimum eligibility requirements .

Not changing this law now would put a thumb on the scale and dampen DC voters. For months, voters have been expecting McDuffie to run for attorney general in the June 21 Democratic primary. To deprive McDuffie of the opportunity to appear on the ballot paper is to deprive voters of the opportunity to assess each candidate’s qualifications and choose who is best qualified to serve as Attorney General.

Emergency legislation to help a candidate get on the ballot is unprecedented. In April 2016, following the Election Board’s decision that it was unlikely to certify Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for primary in June 2016, the council changed the procedures for accessing the president’s primary ballot papers to ensure Sanders would appear on the ballot. If the council refuses to address this when it comes, it will be another clear case of politicians doing things in their interest, not in the interest of the people.

McDuffie does not have to be your candidate, but no candidate or policy should be more important than our democracy.

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