Includes Banning Use of Race and Gender to Reduce Civil Damages, Permanent Vote-By-Mail, Non-Citizen Voting Rights, Power of Attorney Reform, and More
Today, the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety will advance five pieces of legislation during a committee vote this afternoon. The bills range from a ban on limiting damages in civil cases based on race, gender, and other protected traits to making voting more accessible and representative to protecting seniors by reforming laws for powers of attorney.
Stormiyah Denson-Jackson Economic Damages Equity Act
The Stormiyah-Denson Jackson bill ends the long-standing practice of reducing money damages paid as part of personal injury and wrongful death suits based on the person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. The Committee built upon the introduced version of the bill by expanding these protected traits beyond only race, ethnicity, and gender.
“There’s no reason why money damages should be less in tragic circumstances simply because the person was Black or Brown or a woman or transgender,” said Councilmember Allen. “Yet this happens all the time. The defendants who ultimately have to pay up say it simply reflects societal injustices. But what the practice actually does is reinforce and bake in those inequalities for future generations. This practice tells plaintiffs that their lives literally matter less.”
The bill was introduced by Councilmember Trayon White (Ward 8) and is named after Stormiyah Denson-Jackson, a 12-year-old girl who tragically died by suicide at a District boarding school in 2018.
Councilmember Trayon White (Ward 8) added: “The Stormiyah Denson-Jackson Economic Damages Equity Act was named in honor of Ward 8 resident Stormiyah Denson-Jackson. I knew her personally. She was a 12-year African American girl with a promising future who lost her life in a DC Charter School. This bill addresses personal injury or death caused by wrongful acts. It prevents estimations, measures, or calculations of past, present, or future damages for lost earnings or impaired earning capacity that will not be reduced based on race, ethnicity, or gender, among other traits. It is up to the government to act with urgency to ensure residents who are wrongfully killed or injured are not reduced in value due to race, ethnicity, or gender.”
This bill is the third to be advanced by the Committee this month making significant efforts to end racial inequities in the civil legal system. On September 16, the Committee unanimously passed a bill strengthening legal protections for how property is divided among multiple family members when no clear will is left and a second bill expanding and making it easier for low-income residents to have court fees waived to ensure access to their rights.
Elections Modernization Amendment Act
The Committee will also be voting to advance Councilmember Allen's Elections Modernization Amendment Act. This is a significant election reform omnibus bill that continues the Committee’s work to modernize, streamline, and make elections more accessible in the District. The legislation builds upon successful but temporary innovations made by the Board of Elections and the Council in the 2020 election cycle amid a global pandemic, as well as making a number of other meaningful election reforms.
Based off the experience of the 2020 election cycle, the bill requires the Board of Elections to now:
- Automatically mail voters a mail-in ballot and a postage-paid return envelope and provide an alternative format ballots for voters with disabilities;
- Operate no fewer than 55 ballot drop boxes throughout the District in accessible locations and publish the proposed locations in advance for public comment;
- Allow voters to vote at any Vote Center throughout the District, regardless of their assigned precinct;
- Create an electronic ballot tracking system to track and notify voters about the status of their mail-in and special ballots;
- Create a centralized process for receiving public concerns about mail-in and special ballots; and
- Establish and maintain a publicly accessible and searchable election data portal and data visualization dashboards on its website.
“Voters value the convenience and flexibility that mail-in ballots, ballot drop boxes, and Vote Centers provide,” said Councilmember Charles Allen. “The numbers speak volumes: voter turnout increased by 42% from the 2018 primary election to the 2022 primary. And in 2022, approximately 66% of voters cast their ballot by mail or ballot drop box. This tracks with the conversations I’ve personally had with neighbors. To me, it’s a no-brainer to make these changes part of every election moving forward.”
Other significant provisions of the bill:
- Facilitate the future elections of a Commissioner in the ANC representing the single-member district containing the D.C. Jail and the Correctional Treatment Facility by placing requirements on both the Board of Elections and the Department of Corrections;
- Require D.C. Public Schools to be closed on District primary and general election days to make in-person voting at school buildings more accessible for residents with disabilities and to teach children the importance of voting.
- Allow employees of DCPS to run and serve as members of the non-partisan State Board of Education; and
- Address the issue of so-called “faithless electors” by prohibiting an elector from casting a ballot for a candidate other than the candidate of the party the elector has been elected to represent, and establishing a process to remove and replace an elector who violates this provision.
Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act
The Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act would extend voting rights in local elections to otherwise eligible residents of the District who are not U.S. citizens. The bill, as marked up, expands beyond the introduced version to include all non-citizens, regardless of their immigration status. Prospective non-citizen voters would still need to meet the other required qualifications to register to vote, like age and residency requirements. Qualified non-citizens would be able to vote in local elections, as defined in the bill to include elections for Mayor, Chairman or member of the Council, Attorney General, member of the State Board of Education, and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, as well as any initiative, referendum, recall, or charter amendment measure on a District ballot. Federal law prohibits non-citizen voting in federal elections.
“The right to vote is the right to belong in the community you call home. Our non-citizen neighbors, many of whom have lived, worked, and raised families in the District for decades, deserve to have a stake in their government and determine their own leaders – just as we all do. Bringing non-citizens' voices to the ballot box, and more fully into our local government, will only strengthen our democracy and underscore that we believe in taxation with representation,” said Councilmember Allen.
The bill was introduced by Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau (Ward 1), and prior versions of the legislation have been introduced in each of the past four Council Periods.
“Voting creates a vested interest, stake, and sense of belonging in a community, and for too long, many of our residents have been excluded from this right,” said Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, author of the bill. “As a jurisdiction that has long welcomed immigrant members of our community, I’m thrilled to see the Local Resident Voting Rights Act move forward with this critical committee vote. I want to thank my colleague, Councilmember Allen, and his staff for all their hard work on the bill and for listening to the many witnesses that testified this summer about expanding the rights of qualified voters.”
Uniform Power of Attorney Act
This bill represents a long overdue update to the District’s laws governing powers of attorney and addresses major issues for District seniors and other vulnerable residents who need powers of attorney but may be at risk of abuse.
“For too long, seniors and other vulnerable adults who depend on others to represent them in serious financial and legal matters have had very few protections against abuse,” said Councilmember Charles Allen. “This bill clarifies the baseline rights afforded to people who need powers of attorney. These changes are going to close a lot of loopholes and shortcomings in current law that have led to seniors losing significant savings and income and falling prey to bad actors.”
The bill – supported by senior advocacy organizations like the AARP and Legal Counsel for the Elderly - makes the following improvements to laws governing powers of attorney:
- Contains safeguards against elder abuse, including by expanding the people who can challenge whether an agent (the person designated to act of behalf of the senior) is acting in the best interest of the principal (the maker of the power of attorney) by filing an action with the court, to include the principal’s spouse, parent, caregiver, descendant, or person asked to accept the power of attorney;
- Clearly spells out a default standard of fiduciary duties for agents;
- Provides remedies and sanctions for agent abuse, such as requiring the agent to restore the value of the principal’s property and reimbursing the principal for attorney’s fees and costs;
- Includes instructions and warnings for both the principal and the agent on statutory forms;
- Incorporates new provisions to encourage wider acceptance of powers of attorney, particularly by banks and other financial institutions;
- Provides for the automatic revocation of a spouse-agent’s authority upon divorce;
- Clarifies the conditions and circumstances regarding an agent’s resignation and termination of authority; and
- Requires express authorization for certain types of powers deemed high-risk, like real estate transactions.
The final bill is the Paternity Establishment Amendment Act of 2022.