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DC’s low-turnout, non-inclusive elections need reform

This past week, I filled out my ballot for Washington, D.C.’s June primary elections and mailed it. I did it out of a sense of civic duty not because I am under any illusion that any of my candidates will win in November’s general election. None of them have a chance.  

The only candidates listed on my ballot are Republicans, and no member of the GOP has ever been elected as mayor. The city’s 13-member council presently has 11 Democrats and two independents (both of whom legislate like Democrats). Only two Republicans have won council seats in the past 30 years. Despite my desire to see Nelson Rimensnyder become our delegate to Congress, he will lose once again to Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who has held the position since 1991 and whose legislative achievements are underwhelming.

But I suppose I am better off than the 86,861 registered independents, who comprise 16.5 percent of voters. They do not get to vote in the primaries at all. They are disenfranchised for refusing to register with a political party.  

In a town where the words “diversity, equity, and inclusivity” are a mantra, this electoral system seems mighty unfair. And it is. 

To be sure, it is to be expected that Democrats will hold most elected positions in the Federal City. More than 76 percent of the city’s voters are registered as Democrats. But D.C.’s government is a political monoculture. Elected officials are either moderate leftists or extreme leftists. The only discussions about taxes focus on how much they should be increased; the only debates had on poverty are how many more millions should be spent. Where is the diversity of viewpoints among elected officials?  

By design, the city’s partisan primary system discourages political competition. If you want to run for office, then you are highly incentivized to register as a Democrat. Running as a Republican or a Green means that most voters will not see your name on a ballot until the November general election, assuming you make it that far.  

D.C.’s electoral system discourages anyone from taking on Democrats directly. There is no GOP or independent legislator running for attorney general or for the shadow representative positions. The Republican candidate for mayor is a sacrificial lamb who is struggling to raise money because everyone understands she hasn’t a chance. David Krucoff, the lone Republican brave enough to run for city council, is fighting to get his ideas heard because the local media are fixated on the nine Democrats vying for that seat. 

All of which leaves voters worse off. Their choices for elected officials amount to deciding between Coke and Pepsi. Ginger ale and root beer are not on the menu, to say nothing of stiffer drinks, which is why few of them vote in the primaries. Only 18.7 percent bothered to cast a ballot in 2018. 

It does not have to be this way. The D.C. Council should commission a study of the ways the District can replace its antiquated partisan primary and winner-take-all elections with a system that fosters broader political competition and increases voter participation.  

There are various reforms worth considering, and one option worth a close look at is final five voting. Under this system, there would be an open primary. All voters would get the same ballot, and they could choose amongst all the candidates running for an office. Then, the five candidates for each position who get the most votes move on to the general election. And during the general election voters get to rank from 1 to 5 their most favorite to least favorite candidates. 

The potential benefits of this arrangement are many. For one, independent voters would get to fully participate. This is critical; it is simply wrong to exclude voters from any elections. 

For another, a final five system would incentivize broader participation. More non-Democratic candidates would feel like they have a chance to win because they would appear on a primary ballot put before all voters. (Contrast that with the current closed system, wherein anyone considering running on the Libertarian or Green ticket will appear on only a few thousand ballots.) And anyone who wishes to volunteer for one of these campaigns or donate to them will be less likely to think, “Why bother? This is a fool’s errand.” 

Finally, all voters would benefit from the more vigorous competition of ideas. In the primary election, they would have more choices. In the general election, they could have more choices (five rather than two) and they would better express their preferences for candidates via ranked-choice voting. 

Nothing is stopping the D.C. Council from taking action to upgrade our elections — except, perhaps, self-interest. Fear of competition is no excuse for inaction. 

We D.C. denizens prefer home rule, but if that does not occur Congress might step in. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs have jurisdiction over D.C. as do the appropriations subcommittees in each chamber. And the odds are rising that they will be controlled by someone other than Democrats come January 2023. 

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the coeditor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform” (University of Chicago Press, 2020). 

Tags Eleanor Holmes Norton election reform Politics of the United States Primary election Ranked choice voting Washington DC

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