In 2010, Vincent Gray received 72,648 votes in the District of Columbia’s Democratic mayoral primary. That was good enough for a nearly 10-percentage point victory over incumbent Adrian Fenty, but it meant that just 22 percent of the city’s registered Democrats cast ballots for Gray.
This year, with Gray weakened by scandal as he seeks re-election against seven challengers, the primary winner appears likely to receive far less support. With the primary approaching April 1, that’s led to some questions about the way the nation’s capital, long overwhelmingly Democratic, elects its local leaders.
Washington is one of a dwindling number of big U.S. cities that require voters to register with a party to vote in its winner-take-all primary. Those election procedures, combined with an unusually early primary, can depress voter turnout, even in what’s essentially a one-party town.
Of the 30 largest cities in the United States, 23 hold nonpartisan elections, in which all candidates compete against each other regardless of party affiliation. The traditional Democratic bastions of San Francisco and Chicago have made their elections nonpartisan in the last decade. New York City still has partisan primaries, but there’s an automatic runoff if the top vote-getter receives less than 40 percent.
Many cities have seen an increase in turnout after making the change, said Bryan Weaver, an activist who recently left the Democratic Party and is running as an independent for the D.C. Council.
“We need to be forward-thinking and try to find ways that we can attract viable new candidates to elected office, and also bring out voters again,” Weaver said. “If you look at the amount of voters that are showing up to vote in the primary, it’s embarrassingly low.”
Supporters of nonpartisan elections contend that political parties are increasingly irrelevant in the search for capable city leadership and that holding open elections encourages turnout while leveling the playing field, especially for candidates without strong party ties. But others argue that parties are important to the electoral process, that the absence of party labels on ballots can confuse voters, and that uninformed voters could end up choosing candidates by name alone.
Many observers believe the winner of the district’s mayoral primary could get around 40,000 votes, or less than 40 percent of the ballots cast. That works out to support from 12 percent of the district’s registered Democrats, 9 percent of its 444,000 registered voters and just 6 percent of its 646,000 residents.
“I’m thinking 38,000 to 42,000 will be the winner,” said Vincent Orange, one of four councilmembers challenging Gray. “I think the winner will probably come in — in a field of eight people running — probably about 33 percent.”
Orange takes no issue with the city’s election procedures. He won his at-large council seat with 28 percent of the vote in a 2011 special election in which 10 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
City Democratic Party leaders oppose a change. Nonpartisan elections or runoffs could water down the power wielded in local elections by longtime registered Democrats, many of whom are African-American. The city’s black population is now 50 percent, down from 66 percent in 1990.
“If it’s broken, fix it,” said Councilmember Anita Bonds, who also chairs the city’s Democratic State Committee. “Voting in the District of Columbia is really not broken.”
Reform advocates believe winning with well under half the vote is bad for democracy.
“It just seems to me like if you’re going to represent anybody, you should at least have won by the majority,” said Councilmember David Grosso, an independent who has introduced bills calling for open primaries and instant-runoff voting, a system under which voters rank their candidates in order of preference to ensure that the winner has more than 50 percent support.
A switch to open primaries or nonpartisan elections is not imminent. Nonetheless, the city’s 75,000 independent voters may have an opportunity this year to influence local politics. Independents are the second-largest voting bloc in the city, which has just 27,000 registered Republicans.
The city has traditionally held its primaries in September, but because this year’s is in April, a non-Democratic candidate would have seven months to challenge the primary winner. Councilmember David Catania, an independent, is considering doing just that.
The city hasn’t had a competitive general election since 1994, when Republican Carol Schwartz got 42 percent of the vote against Democrat Marion Barry, three years after Barry’s release from prison for smoking crack cocaine.
Some independents are transplants who aren’t accustomed to closed primaries. Brett Chittenden, 32, an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, moved to the district three years ago from Georgia. He’s an independent who has registered as a Republican in the past.
“I think I might have hosed myself here. I probably should have registered as a Democrat so I could vote in the primary,” Chittenden said. He said he plans to vote in the November general election.
Catania can be expected to make a strong push for independent voters if he runs. But Chuck Thies, Gray’s campaign manager, said a long general-election campaign would not be kind to Catania, who left the Republican Party in 2004 over President George W. Bush’s opposition to gay marriage.
“He’s got seven months to continually respond to concerns about his Republican history, his Republican background,” Thies said. “Angry Republicans don’t play well in places where Barack Obama won 90 percent of the vote.”
Gray, however, has his own troubles. Four people who worked on his 2010 campaign, including three close friends, have pleaded guilty to felonies involving illicit funds and other dirty tricks, and the federal investigation is ongoing. The mayor has denied all wrongdoing but has declined to answer specific questions about his knowledge of the illegal funding, a $650,000 effort that prosecutors called a “shadow campaign.”
Polls suggest that several challengers dividing up the anti-incumbent vote would benefit Gray, and Thies said none of those candidates has broken out of the pack. Councilmember Muriel Bowser won The Washington Post’s endorsement and is trying to position herself as the most viable alternative to the mayor.
“There are only two options in this race,” said Bo Shuff, Bowser’s campaign manager.
Councilmembers Jack Evans and Tommy Wells beg to differ, and they have bases of support in their home wards. The deep field of candidates and the early date make this year’s primary unprecedented, but that doesn’t appear to be translating into an engaged electorate. Some campaigns blame the calendar — and the unusually harsh winter — for making it more difficult to interact with voters.
“It’s April Fool’s Day,” Thies said, “and that speaks to the absurdity of when this election is scheduled.”
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