Primary Concerns

Should D.C. change the way it chooses candidates?

Early voting starts today for the Sept. 14 D.C. primary. And, in all likelihood, the winner of the Democratic primary for mayor -- probably Vincent Gray, according to the latest numbers from the Washington Post -- will be essentially elected mayor that day.

Incumbent Adrian Fenty says he will not run as an independent in November if he loses the primary, and D.C. Republicans -- who have tacitly been backing Fenty -- say they have no plans to run any candidate. So, unless the seventh time’s the charm for Faith, the Democratic nominee will be the city’s next mayor. Same as it ever was.

Fenty’s campaign made a last-ditch attempt to get the Board of Elections and Ethics to allow unaffiliated voters to vote in the Democratic primary, which would have upped the possible voter pool by about 72,400. That effort failed, but it did open a fresh debate about how the District chooses its elected officials.

The pro-Fenty Post, which said the elections board was right on the law, said in a Thursday editorial that Fenty was nevertheless “right on the merits” and suggested the Council “revisit the issue for future elections.” The Post likes a “sensible proposal” by Councilmember David Catania, a Republican-turned-independent, that would “allow independents to vote in the primary election of a political party if the party permitted or to change party affiliation on the day of an election.”

Greater Greater Washington’s Topher Matthews has another idea. He says that with “the District’s overwhelming Democratic population,” the primary system “has no legitimate purpose.” And even though most voters know the primary is the real election in the city, “there are always more District residents that show up for the actual general election.” In 2006, when “there was not one genuinely competitive race on the ballot,” voter turnout was higher in November than in September.

Matthews says the District should adopt an instant runoff voting system, in which all ballot-qualified candidates “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.”

Another alternative is the nonpartisan blanket primary, often and unfortunately called a “jungle primary.” Under this system, recently adopted in California, the primary is open to all registered voters, and the top two vote getters advance to the general election, regardless of party. In the case of this year’s D.C. contest, it would mean the field of eight candidates (the five Democrats, Statehood Green candidate Faith, and two others who have qualified for the fall campaign) would be narrowed to two -- almost certainly Fenty and Gray -- who would then square off in November.  (To see who is on your local primary ballot, click here.)

In D.C., the “jungle primary” would basically mean all voters could take part in a big Democratic primary in September and a Democratic runoff in November. But the system could actually help the Republicans and Statehood Greens, in theory. If there were five competitive Democratic candidates in a primary for, say, At-Large Council, along with one credible Republican, the Republican could conceivably benefit from the split Democratic vote and squeak into second place, guaranteeing a November ballot spot.

There is nothing inherently unfair about D.C.’s current primary system, since anyone can join any party, and no one forces D.C. voters to overwhelmingly opt for Democrats in general elections. Seventy-five percent of the city’s registered voters will be able to vote in the Democratic primary this year (though some, like me, have “D”s after our names for pragmatic, not ideological, reasons). But the 17 percent registered with no party, seven percent registered Republican, and one percent registered Statehood Green will be shut out of the process. Future reform should be considered.

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