DC primaries should be scrapped
Come the night of September 14th, DC's primary election day, the identity of the city's next mayor will be known. Barring some last minute write-in campaign, most campaigning will slow to a trickle and the victor will engage in a two month victory lap till November.
This is true because of the District's overwhelming Democratic population. Once the party has decided on a candidate, no other contender has a viable chance in November. Democrats generally defend this system and say, hey, it's not their fault that the Republicans and Statehood Greens can't field a candidate with a real shot. And they're right.
But nonetheless, DC's primary election system has no legitimate purpose and should be scrapped in favor of an instant run-off voting system for the general election.
I can only think of a few legitimate purposes for a primary election, and they either don't or shouldn't apply to DC. First, a primary allows a party to unite its resources around a single candidate in order to wage a general election campaign. In DC there is no general election campaign. Either Gray or Fenty will win the primary and then mail it in for the next two months.
Second, a primary allows a party to unite its vote around a single candidate so that a "spoiler candidate" doesn't split the party and allow another party's candidate to win. Whether or not this was ever a legitimate goal, it simply wouldn't apply if the city were to adopt a preferential voting system.
The most compelling reason to scrap DC's primaries is enfranchisement. This is because even though the primary election is the de facto general election, there are always more District residents that show up for the actual general election. For instance, in 2008 the general election turnout was over five times the size of the primary turnout.
Sure, you say, lots of people showed up to vote for Obama. Ok, but how do you explain 2006? Over 10 percent more people voted in the general election than did in the primary, even though it wasn't a presidential election and there was not one genuinely competitive race on the ballot. So even though Fenty was already "measuring the drapes", over 10,000 more people showed up to vote. In 2002, another non-presidential election year, over 27% more people showed up in November than in September.
The simple fact is that even though anyone can sign up as a Democrat and vote in the primary, only a minority of registered voters actually do so. During the last three mayoral election years (2006, 2002 and 1998), the percentage of registered voters that voted in the Democratic primary has held steady at 25, 27 and 26 respectively.
Even in the highly charged 1994 primary when Marion Barry returned from jail to defeat Sharon Pratt Kelly, only 39 percent of registered voters voted in the Democratic primary. During the non-mayoral years, that number falls off the charts, averaging just 12 percent.
Expect these numbers to fall even further once the District moves the primary to the middle of summer in order to comply with the new MOVE Act, which requires ballots to be sent to overseas voters by 45 days before the general election (a deadline this year the District almost certainly won't make).
So as it exists, the system magnifies the voice of a small dedicated bloc of voters. Does the rest of the electorate have to rubber stamp this decision? Of course not, but the very nature of the primary system ensures that there are no other viable Democrats left on the ballot by the time of the general election. Since the only way to be a viable candidate is to run for the Democratic primary, the rest of the electorate is left with little choice but to rubber stamp the primary results. It's a feedback loop.
A lot of these problems are hardly unique to the District. But their effects are exacerbated by the city's political demographics. If we genuinely care about democratic participation and want our elections to better reflect the will of the whole electorate, we should adopt an instant runoff voting system.
How this would work would be that all candidates that qualify would appear on the November ballot. Voters would then rank the candidates in order of their preference. Through a simple multi-step process, the candidate with the most aggregate support is determined.
Unfortunately there appears to be little appetite in the District government to increase voter enfranchisement in this manner. Councilmember David Catania's modest proposal to open up the primaries to unaffiliated voters was roundly rejected. Then yesterday, fearful that it would create a de facto open primary, the elections board upheld a bar against independent voters changing their affiliations to Democrat within 30 days of the primary.
Starting this year, non-registered residents can register right up to Election Day. Thus a person who has lived in the city for, say, 10 years and just never registered (or alternatively, a brand new resident that was a registered Republican in his or her last state) will be able to register and vote as a Democrat on the day of the primary. But if you are a registered independent voter who only just now got interested in the election and want to participate in the only vote that really matters, tough luck.
While I believe this particular decision is unjust and possibly a violation of Equal Protection, I don't mean to suggest that the District's primary system as a whole is unfair. It's not. But there is no legitimate reason to keep it as is when a much better option is available.
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