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Can A DC Campaign Bring Political Accountability and Inclusion to A One-Party Town?

District of Columbia
Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash
Created: 02 July, 2024
4 min read

Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

 

It goes without saying that the District of Columbia is a one-party town. Out of the 13 seats that compose the DC City Council, 11 are held by Democrats, and the other two are held by officials registered as independent.

The city is so safe for Democrats that the most consequential elections across the board are the Democratic primaries, which are paid for by taxpayers but shut out approximately 73,000 independent voters who end up having no meaningful say in who represents them.

But it doesn’t stop there, because elections in the city can attract large candidate fields in which a person is not only guaranteed a win by appealing to their party’s base, but they don't even need a majority of voters to win.

Take, for example, the 2024 Democratic primary in Ward 7. There were 10 candidates on the ballot. Wendell Felder advanced to November with 24% of the vote in a ward in which he will face no challenger in the general election.

Felder won the ward’s city council seat outright in a primary that is closed to voters outside the Democratic Party and didn’t even have close to a majority of the primary vote. 

The same thing happened in 2020. A crowded field of Democrats ran in the primary in Ward 7, the winner won with a plurality of the vote, and did not face a general election challenger because the ward is so safe for Democrats.

This type of outcome is one of the reasons Lisa D.T. Rice, a Ward 7 advisory neighborhood commissioner, proposed “The Ranked Choice Voting and Open The Primary Elections to Independent Voters Act of 2024.”

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The proposal, which is also known as Initiative 83, calls for a semi-open primary system in which registered party members have to vote in their respective party’s primary, but independent voters can choose a party’s ballot in the city’s elections.

Further, it would implement the use of ranked choice voting in all District elections to not only let voters rank candidates in order of preference, but it also guarantees that the winner needs over 50% of the vote.

The Yes on 83 campaign submitted over 40,000 signatures on July 1 to the DC Board of Elections to put the initiative on the ballot. 

"We want full democracy here in D.C.,” Rice said on Monday. “We need ranked choice voting to make politicians accountable to us — and the 73,000 people who have been disenfranchised from voting.”

The argument by RCV advocates is that the voting method requires a candidate to get a majority of the vote, which means in crowded fields they will have to campaign for voters’ second and even third choices.

And when they have to campaign for a voter’s second or third choice, they are not going to attack that voter’s first choice – creating a more civil and healthier political ecosystem of competition and choice.

“D.C. voters have expressed strong support for Initiative 83 and what it stands for. Many people we’ve spoken with are well-informed and eager for change,” said Make All Votes Count DC Field Director and Steering Committee member Kris Furnish in a statement.

Make All Votes Count DC adopted Initiative 83 in January.

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“For those who were unfamiliar with the initiative, they quickly understood why this reform is needed in the district after speaking with one of our petition circulators,” Furnish added.

The proposal is not supported by Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser, who is no stranger to winning elections with a plurality. She advanced from the Democratic primary in the 2014 mayoral race with 43% of the vote. 

She has previously stated that she “hopes that nobody votes for [Initiative 83].” The city’s Democratic Party also filed a complaint to keep the initiative from getting on the ballot. The effort failed. 

Calling DC A One-Party Town Is No Exaggeration

The DC City Council is composed of 8 seats for each of the city’s wards, 4 at-large seats for regular members that are voted on by the entire city, and 1 at-large seat for the chairperson, who is also elected in a citywide vote.

All 8 of the city’s wards are represented by a Democrat. The chairperson is a Democrat. It is possible the party could have a clean sweep of all the seats if not for the Home Rule Act, which limits the number of at-large seats the majority party can hold.

The Democratic Party can only hold 3 of the at-large seats, which is where the two independents on the council, Christina Henderson and Kenyan McDuffie, factor in.

In 2022, Mayor Muriel Bowser easily won re-election with 74.66% of the vote after winning the Democratic primary with 49% – once again securing her victory with less than a majority of her own party’s voters.

The lowest percentage a Democratic candidate won their general election in a ward's city council race in 2022 was 79.9% of the vote.

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