Greater Greater Washington

DC Home Rule almost had... nonpartisan elections

During Hurricane Sandy, I passed the time by reading the legislative history of the DC Home Rule Act. This 1973 bill, which gave District residents the right to vote for local leaders who can make local laws for the first time in 99 years, established the system of government DC has today. But what might have been?


Photo by jcolman on Flickr.

Congress considered a lot of different alternatives for Home Rule. Very different bills passed the House and Senate. The House made some amendments on the floor, and then the conference committee made some of its own changes to reconcile the House and Senate versions.

One system that almost was: nonpartisan elections for DC Council and Mayor.

DC's current system includes a 13-member council. 4 at-large members and the chairman run for office citywide, while each of the 8 wards elects one member. All run in partisan elections, with primaries in April (September up until last year) and the general election in November.

But neither the House nor Senate bill specified that. The House bill had the 13 members, 5 at-large, but the Council would have chosen the chairman from among the 5 at-large members each January. (2249) The Senate bill, meanwhile, had only 3 at-large members (2 plus the chairman) for a total of 11 councilmembers. The voters would choose the chairman at-large directly, as they do today. (2887)

House bill had nonpartisan elections with runoff

The House bill also specified nonpartisan elections for Mayor and Council. In the open general election, the top vote-getter would win only if he or she received at least 40% of the votes. Otherwise, there would be a runoff 21 days after the election. For elections for 1 person (like ward councilmember or mayor), the 2 top finishers would participate in the runoff; for at-large elections with 2 to be elected, the runoff would involve the top 3. (2347)

The House's version put elections in November of even-numbered years that aren't Presidential election years (where they are today), but the Senate placed them on Presidential years with primaries in September.


Adams. Photo from Wikipedia.
The conference committee ultimately picked the Senate's option of partisan elections and a chairman elected in his or her own race, but the House's 13-member council and choice of years (3013-3014). Rep. Brock Adams (D-WA, 1927-2004, US Rep. 1965-1977, US Secretary of Transportation 1977-1979, Senator 1987-1993) and his staff prepared a memo during conference on the major House-Senate differences. He wrote,
Both these bills leave much to be desired; to my thinking, elections should be partisan, without runoffs (only Southern states have them) in even numbered non-Presidential years, with primaries in September and generals in November ... with no runoff (like Seattle). (2891)
Business, labor, parties all favored partisan elections

Most local groups favored partisan elections as well. Rep. Donald Fraser (D-MN, b. 1924, US Rep. 1963-1979, Mayor of Minneapolis 1980-1993) said that "Testimony before the House District of Columbia Committee was overwhelmingly in favor of party designation for these elections."

Walter F. McArdle, president of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, spoke in favor of partisan elections, as did George Apperson, president of Greater Washington Central Labor Council, who told the committee:

We think it would be wrong to prohibit partisan politics in elections in the District of Columbia. Partisan politics helps to focus responsibility and that's what we need in the Districtresponsible politics and responsible government.
The DC Republican Party also agreed, saying, "There is no question but the present political parties in the District of Columbia can provide the machinery by which a candidate aspiring to office can best bring his or her views of the electorate." So did the League of Women Voters.

Fraser concluded, "In my own State of Minnesota, nonpartisan elections for mayor and city council in the large cities did not work well. The State legislature has reinstated party designation. I believe this is wise. (1684)

Hatch Act drove push for nonpartisan elections

If so many people supported partisan elections, how did the House pass a bill with nonpartisan? The committee reported out a bill with partisan elections, but a dissenting commentary from a number of Republicans who opposed a great many provisions of the bill (including Arlington, Virginia Rep. Joel Broyhill, 1919-2006, US Rep. 1953-1974), argued for nonpartisan:

Based on information recently provided by the United States Conference of Mayors' that a total of 152 cities with populations over 100,000, 92 or 60% conduct nonpartisan elections, 49 or 32% conduct partisan elections, and for 11 cities the information is unknown. ... Several such cities with nonpartisan elections are Detroit, Seattle, Oakland, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Francisco, San Diego, San Antonio, Memphis, and Columbia.

It would appear that in a city such as Washington, D.C., which is the Nation's Capital, where the Federal and local interests are so inextricably interwoven, that nonpartisan elections would best serve the interests of the Federal government, as well as the local residents. ...

It is doubtful if other cities of the size of the District of Columbia have as many Federal employees within their boundaries. Obviously, the drafters of this legislation recognized this in trying to amend the Hatch Act and permit the Federal employees to be partisan political candidates for the office of Council Member and Mayor. How much better it would be to avoid the question of amendment of the Hatch Act, which as is argued elsewhere in these views would undoubtedly result eventually in the repeal of the Hatch Act in its entirety, and hold the elections, in the District of Columbia, if authorized, on a nonpartisan basis. (1585-1586)

The subcommitee and committee markup sessions don't include a lot of debate over the merits of partisan or nonpartisan elections, but they do contain voluminous debate over the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from participating in partisan political activity.

During Senate debate, then-freshman Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM, Senator 1973-2009), said, "in the District of Columbia, 135,141 or 40% of voters would be subject to Hatch and unable to actively participate in the election process."

In fact, the Civil Service Commission issued an opinion that the then-sitting Mayor and City Councilmembers, who were federal appointees at the time, "would have to resign in order to run for office" under the new Home Rule system. (3613) Congress amended the Home Rule Act in 1974 to exempt the mayor and councilmembers from the Hatch Act, but problems with the way the Hatch Act applies to DC continue to this day.

At the beginning of floor debate over the bill, the chairman of the District of Columbia Committee introduced a "Committee substitute" that made a number of changes (2361). One of these was to replace partisan elections with nonpartisan. That provision never came up in the floor debate itself, and was part of the bill the House passed, but the members of the District of Columbia Committee who'd passed the original bill with partisan elections put it back in conference.

All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in Home Rule for the District of Columbia, 1973-1974, Background and Legislative History of H.R. 9056, H.R. 9682, and Related Bills Culminating in the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act, Approved December 24, 1973 (Public Law 93-198), Serial No, S-4, US Government Printing Office, December 31, 1974.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

Add a comment »

Fascinating. Fenty would still be mayor if we had non-partisan elections.

by Tom A. on Oct 31, 2012 10:37 am • linkreport

Very interesting. I know that at one point Congress considered giving the District a governor and a legislative assembly, similar to the states.

As for the number of at-large council members, a few years ago voters in Baltimore amended the city charter to eliminate the at-large council seats (except for the chairman). I wondered what would happen if we had all ward seats here in DC and this is what I came up with:

https://twitter.com/AdamLDC/status/247360515179966464/photo/1/large

by Adam on Oct 31, 2012 10:43 am • linkreport

Non-partisan elections windup being elections among candidates in the dominant party. Kindof like what happens with the Democratic primary in DC. This originated among progressives and mostly was a way to keep moderate Republicans in power in big cities, but mostly caught on in suburbs. I grew-up in a 'burb that had "non-partisan" elections, except everyone usually was a Democrat and it was a matter of different coalitions within the town and the County Party. The next town over had the same thing, except among republicans. taking the politics out of elections is a bit of an oxymoron. Partisanship promotes debate, nonpartisanship functionally operated to stunt it and it tends to promote strong man figures just as much as a traditional party politics. A couple suburbs over from us was a town where the "nonpartisan" mayor (actually a Republican) ruled for a couple decades. Nonpartisanship wouldn't have prevented the long reign of Barry.

If you want a better government, you have to get beyond gimmicks like this and build strong organizations that promote effective, ethical leadership.

by Rich on Oct 31, 2012 10:47 am • linkreport

Rich,

Of course non-partisan elections aren't free of politics - that's not the point. The point would be to make those elections truly democratic, rather than shielded behind the partisan primary elections.

by Alex B. on Oct 31, 2012 10:55 am • linkreport

Non-partisan elections windup being elections among candidates in the dominant party. Kindof like what happens with the Democratic primary in DC. This originated among progressives and mostly was a way to keep moderate Republicans in power in big cities,

Actually, it originated in the South where one-party politics meant that to have a "choice", open elections followed by a runoff was the best under the circumstances. Louisiana still does this for their statewide elections, I believe.

We'd be much better off if we eliminated the closed primaries and just had open elections followed by a runoff.

by JustMe on Oct 31, 2012 11:04 am • linkreport

Honestly, I don't see much difference. Both Arlington and DC are jurisdictions solidly 65+ D performance. That is the operating fact, and turning it "nonpartisan" is just going to result in Michael Browns. The parties aren't very strong in DC -- personalities are -- although the party is much stronger in Arlington.

I don't think the "problems" with the Hatch are a bug, they are a feature.

by charlie on Oct 31, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

Maybe I don't understand the concept of "nonpartisan" but Rich is right, the "nonpartisan" scenario here in DC would involve members w/in the same party. The only group it seems to benefit most would be the losers. So if, for instance, Fenty nor Gray got 40%, they could have the runoff. Since Gray was well over 50%, that actually wasn't the case but it could go something like that.

by HogWash on Oct 31, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

I've never understood why I have to pay but cannot play within the primary elections. The public has to foot the bill for primary elections, one in which only party members can vote to elect their representative. I'm a nonparty registered voter and while I respect the freedom of association and choice of a political party to only allow one candidate to represent them, they should figure out how to whittle down their candidates on their own dime if they're going to exclude people from participating.

We should allow any and all candidates to run in the first election ("primary"). (Institute a signature requirement if there's a concern with too many/non-feasable candidates.) Candidate with 50%+1 wins, otherwise, top 2 move on to a second election ("general" or "runoff"). Like Louisiana, as JustMe said.

Nonpartisan elections do not prohibit parties from being involved in the election. They can still endorse, support, etc. It simply prohibits them from controlling who runs and thus controlling the election.

by 7r3y3r on Oct 31, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

During Hurricane Sandy, I passed the time by reading the legislative history of the DC Home Rule Act.

That's just sad.

The only group it seems to benefit most would be the losers.

It would benefit the thousands of people who are effectively disenfranchised because they are not members of the Democratic Party, and the "real" election for office in DC is the Democratic primary.

by dcd on Oct 31, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

Maybe I don't understand the concept of "nonpartisan" but Rich is right, the "nonpartisan" scenario here in DC would involve members w/in the same party. The only group it seems to benefit most would be the losers. So if, for instance, Fenty nor Gray got 40%, they could have the runoff. Since Gray was well over 50%, that actually wasn't the case but it could go something like that.

No, you're thinking about it backwards. The "nonpartisan" scenario means that folks who are not affiliated with the Democratic party are allowed to vote in the "meaningful" part of the election--not that the candidates will be non-partisan.

The observation that "the only group it seems to benefit most would be the losers" is just tautological.

by oboe on Oct 31, 2012 1:25 pm • linkreport

+2 dcd...for both comments. Haha.

by 7r3y3r on Oct 31, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

While non- partisan elections would seem to make the Hatch Act less of a problem for federal employees interested in running for Council or mayor, it doesn't. The prohibitions on political fundraising would still apply. It's awfully hard to run for any office above the ANC-level without any fund raising. Public financing would address this, but that's a whole other issue.

by TM on Oct 31, 2012 1:34 pm • linkreport

I beleive the hatch act allows fundraising in a non partisan election, but Im not sure.

Clearly the impact in DC is different than in the suburbs. In Fairfax county the non partisan elections (for school board) are partisan, but with both major parties repreented - FCDC and FCRC both endorse, the endorsements are mutually exclusive, its hard to run as an "independent" etc. In DC a non partisan election would be similar to a democratic primary, but with folks who register as GOP or independent still voting.

One could suggest that in DC registering as GOP or Independent is pointless, and folks could register Dem regardless of their national party preference, and so convert the Dem primary into a non-partisan election, but I suppose the need to self express is too important for that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 31, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

It would benefit the thousands of people who are effectively disenfranchised because they are not members of the Democratic Party, and the "real" election for office in DC is the Democratic primary.

They aren't disenfranchised. They choose not to affiliate w/either party. Voters purged from rolls for nefarious purposes are disenfranchised. Felons who repaid their debt to society are disenfranchised. Not this scenario.

The "nonpartisan" scenario means that folks who are not affiliated with the Democratic party are allowed to vote in the "meaningful" part of the election--not that the candidates will be non-partisan.

Oh? I don't think I missed the portion of this article covering that..which is why I said I must not understand the concept.

The observation that "the only group it seems to benefit most would be the losers" is just tautological.

Only to those who read that article and understood what "nonpartisan" implied here.

by HogWash on Oct 31, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

They aren't disenfranchised. They choose not to affiliate w/either party. Voters purged from rolls for nefarious purposes are disenfranchised. Felons who repaid their debt to society are disenfranchised. Not this scenario.

Hence the reason I said "effectively disenfranchised." Residents who are not democratic party members, whether they be Republicans, Green Party, or whatever, have no real voice in city-wide elections, since thise elections are effectively decided in the democratic primary. Non-partisan elections would address this problem.

by dcd on Oct 31, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

@TM and @AWalkerInTheCity:
The issue hinges on the definition of nonpartisan elections since the Hatch Act only attaches to partisan political activity.

Nonpartisan elections, for purposes of the Hatch Act, are those in which none of the candidates represent a political party. State laws, however, usually designate nonpartisan elections as those in which none of the candidates represent a political party on the ballot. Basically, a nonpartisan election under state law can be partisan under the Hatch Act if partisan politics significantly enter the race (e.g., a candidate solicits or advertises the endorsement of a political party or uses a political party’s resources to further their campaign). Thus, if an election is partisan for purposes of the Hatch Act, despite being nonpartisan under state law, the federal employee cannot be candidate or solicit contributions for a candidate in that race.

But, the Hatch Act has an exception for elections in certain designated localities, such as the DC metro area, that allows federal employees to run for office and to solicit contributions for a campaign so long as they are running as or soliciting for an independent candidate. The problem is, while the areas in Virginia and Maryland that surround DC are included in the list of designated localities afforded the exception, DC is not. It's an anachronism from the Hatch Act being passed before the Home Rule Act (i.e., before DC had local elections).

So even if DC changed their elections to nonpartisan, it's unlikely that a federal employee could run for office since it's almost certain that the parties will be heavily involved. What needs to happen, rather, and what Norton is pushing for with the Hatch Act Modernization Act, is to amend the Hatch Act to treat DC like its surrounding jurisdictions for purposes of the exception. (http://votesmart.org/public-statement/718264/hatch-act-equality-for-dc-moves-in-senate).

Sorry that was so long.

by 7r3y3r on Oct 31, 2012 3:09 pm • linkreport

thank you 7

so that means a Fed could not hold a fundraiser for an FCDC or FCRC endorsed candidate for Fairfax Board of Education?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 31, 2012 3:13 pm • linkreport

One could suggest that in DC registering as GOP or Independent is pointless, and folks could register Dem regardless of their national party preference, and so convert the Dem primary into a non-partisan election, but I suppose the need to self express is too important for that.

It's more than just a self-indulgent need for self-expression. Many DC residents work in partisan or pseudo-partisan position, where changing parties is a career killer. If you're a legislative aide for Rep. Ima Wingnut (R-Crazytown), or assistant majority counsel for the House Committee on Democrats Suck, or the General Counsel of the D.C. Republican Party, your boss/compatriots aren't going to be very sympathetic when you tell them you became a registered Democract because you want your vote for the DC Council Chair to count.

(Sorry for the snark - can't wait for the election to be over.)

by dcd on Oct 31, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport

good point, DCD, i overlooked that.

Still I suspect folks in those positions are a minority of the DC GOP (and an even smaller proportion of the Statehood Greens, registered independents, etc)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 31, 2012 3:22 pm • linkreport

Generally, simple endorsement is not enough. The issue is whether the FCRC/FCDC and the candidate are acting in concert with one another to of such degree as to create a representative relationship. Meaning that it's generally understood that the candidate is representing the FCRC/FCDC despite party designation not appearing on the ballot. Their is no bright line rule.

Think of it this way: if the Sierra Club, for example, simply endorses Candidate X, we don't think of that candidate as the Sierra Club candidate. But if Candidate X receives and touts the endorsement, uses Club funds and resources (like voting lists), and knowingly acquiesces to the Club distributing sample ballots listing all their endorsed candidates, including Candidate X, then it's generally understood that Candidate X represents the Sierra Club. Replace Sierra Club with a political party and the election is now partisan.

I've never quite understood why party politics need to enter schoolboard races (and the like). Well, other than to use it as a cheap trick to get people who know nothing about you to vote for you based on with whom you associate.

by 7r3y3r on Oct 31, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

@ Tom A (and others): Fenty might also still be mayor had he chosen to run in the General Election. But he chose not to. Just sayin'.

by Brooklander on Oct 31, 2012 4:21 pm • linkreport

@ dcd:If you're a legislative aide for Rep. Ima Wingnut (R-Crazytown)

then you're not voting in DC, because you're from and voting in Wingnut's home district.

by Jasper on Oct 31, 2012 8:54 pm • linkreport

then you're not voting in DC, because you're from and voting in Wingnut's home district.

You're assuming voter fraud? That's a pretty big leap, don't you think?

by dcd on Nov 1, 2012 9:05 am • linkreport

dcd,

It's not fraud for members of congress to vote in their home districts. The same thing applies to staff from that same state. It's not a requirement, but it certainly can apply.

by Alex B. on Nov 1, 2012 9:19 am • linkreport

"The issue is whether the FCRC/FCDC and the candidate are acting in concert with one another to of such degree as to create a representative relationship. Meaning that it's generally understood that the candidate is representing the FCRC/FCDC despite party designation not appearing on the ballot. Their is no bright line rule. "

not only do they endorse, provide funds and volunteers (and printed sample ballots) they will pressure their comm members to not support any candidates the comm did not endorse.

As for why, the School bd is a stepping stone to higher office, and the winners are in deep debt to the party - when they are not already party activists.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 1, 2012 9:24 am • linkreport

"then you're not voting in DC, because you're from and voting in Wingnut's home district"

also there is no requirement for Rep Wingnut to only hire staff from his state. he can hire Ms HighlyTrained Specialist, or Mr Sharp Hill Careerist, who may be from any state.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 1, 2012 9:27 am • linkreport

Yes. Voting in the primaries is a lot more difficult than voting in the general election. For one, same-day registration is difficult/impossible if you got registered as a independent when applying for a drivers license.

The closed primaries are a definite "gotcha" for newcomers to the city.

Also, while many here are pointing out that the upsides to nonpartisan elections might not be as great as some are hoping, I'm also not seeing a very big downside. Why not try it?

by andrew on Nov 1, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

Our current system is not serving the public well. Candidates who do not have majority support even among their own party ranks are ending up taking office (see, most recently, Vincent Orange's victory in the Democratic primary). We can design a system that produces better electoral outcomes with candidates with broader public mandates.

My hope is that in the next legislative term some council member, at a minimum, will convene a hearing on voting reform in the District. That would be a start. The public should discuss the merits of nonpartisan elections, runoffs, instant runoff voting systems, approval voting systems, etc.

Mendelson, as elected chair, could do it. But I don't see him willing to disrupt a system that serves incumbents well. I hope he proves me wrong. If David Grosso wins an At-large seat, perhaps he would be willing to champion the issue.

In any event, it's time.

by Mark Jordan on Nov 1, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

Non-partisan races would, of course, still be subject to coalitions; I'd assume that non-partisan local races would at least break the link to federal politics and allow for coalitions to arise that would be more responsive to strictly local affairs. I'm fascinated by the electoral coalitions (both ad hoc and standing) that I've seen in "nonpartisan" cities like Montreal and Durham.

@JustMe: IIRC, Louisiana's runoff system was inherited from the French. California has recently adopted it, as well.

by Payton on Nov 1, 2012 9:01 pm • linkreport

Payton hits the nail on the head: the national parties do not often translate into local issues. There are Democrats in DC who support smart growth, and Democrats here who fight it. There are DC Republicans who support bicycle infrastructure, and Republicans here who oppose it. At the local level, the "R" or "D" is often meaningless.

Removing the partisan headline would encourage coalitions to form that actually represent the issues that matter to District residents. That would ultimately be good for holding our elected leaders accountable.

Also, to the extent we’re talking about our home rule charter: I still like this idea (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/10087/does-dc-need-more-councilmembers/) for increasing the number of council members to two from each ward and eight at-large. Currently, each council member often acts as lord of his or her own fiefdom. Increasing the size of the council would decrease the relative power held by each individual council-member. It would also increase opportunities for coalitions to form around issues that matter city-wide.

by ObliviousScout on Nov 5, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

I've heard rumbles that, at some point in the debate about how to create a legislative branch for DC during the home rule debate, there was talk about creating an "ANC assembly," which would have essentially been a lower house to the Council's upper house in a bi-cameral legislature. Is there any evidence that such a move was actually contemplated? Would love to know whether I can put this rumor to bed or actually discuss it more fully!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 18, 2012 10:29 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or