D.C.'s Deadly DMV


As the recently expelled Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) was ushered to a white-collar Oz this week, he swore he'd run for reelection from his prison cell. If so, his won't be the only unusual campaign this fall.

Anthony Williams, Washington's Democratic mayor, was presumed a shoo-in for reelection in November: He had no challengers in his own party, and the Republicans didn't even have a candidate yet. Then officials discovered that the signatures his campaign had gathered to put him on the primary ballot were more fraudulent than a Halliburton earnings report. Among the non-Washingtonians who had allegedly signed Williams' petition: U.N. chief Kofi Annan, balding sitcom star Kelsey Grammar, and inside-trading gay icon Martha Stewart. According to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, 8,000 of the qualifying signatures were dubious.

What's worse, if the mayor were to run as an independent, he'd have to return millions in campaign donations. So as Traficant was planning to pull a Eugene Debs, Williams appealed the board's decision–and declared that, should that fail, he would run a write-in campaign for his party's nomination.

This is a delightful development. First, as a longtime fan of America's third parties, I always get a burst of Schadenfreude when a mainstream, major-party candidate runs into ballot access trouble. Second, and more important, as a former Washingtonian I'm pleased to see one of the town's administrators tripped up by the institutional incompetence usually reserved for the little people. Anyone who's ever visited the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles will know what I mean.

Those of you who haven't visited the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles may think I'm exaggerating. After all, aren't DMVs terrible in every corner of the country? Yes, they are, but this one is special. I have experienced these institutions in North Carolina, Texas, Washington state, the District of Columbia, California, and Maryland. I have seen the dregs of the nation's DMVs. But the first time I walked into D.C.'s chaotic office, I took one look, started to sweat, and walked right out again. I can do this sometime else, I thought to myself, then drove with expired tags for months before working up the courage to enter the building again.

The high point of the experience came when I attempted to tell one of the employees about a problem with the computerized driving test: On one question, all the vowels were missing. "I don't know anything about that," she replied–and trust me, I believe her.

The technocratic Williams was elected promising to reform institutions like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Many have actually gotten worse. The DMV itself, after briefly improving, has plunged back into its old habits; lately, it's hit new lows. Its new computer system is a disaster. Thanks to some lousy planning, it recently went a whole day without phones. One citizen was told he couldn't reregister a Toyota because the car company owed the DMV money. For years it has overbilled people, fining drivers who never broke the law and demanding payment from those who've already coughed up the money.

So let the mayor twist in the wind. He'll probably get reelected anyway, but at least he'll know what it's like to be at the mercy of a completely dysfunctional organization. And if you vote in Washington's Democratic primary, think about writing in James Traficant instead. I hear he wants to come back to town–and besides, someone probably wrote him in already on the mayor's petition.