The District’s mayoral contest has captured nominal sustained interest and enlisted little notable passion. That signifies a lot more about the candidates and the city’s primary election restrictions than it does public civic-mindedness.
Even the date of this year’s April 1 partisan party nominating process provides an all-too-easy punch line.
Despite the newly condensed primary election schedule and intensified politicking, the campaign has unfolded at a seemingly languid pace before a largely disengaged electorate. Even the long-anticipated possibility that allegations of impropriety or acts of illegality either known to Mayor Vincent Gray or possibly involving sanction during his successful 2010 defeat of the prior one-term incumbent took the tenor of a predictable development.
No primary election contender in the usually determinative Democratic race, including the incumbent mayor and four D.C. Council challengers, has generated much momentum. Not only are the candidates clumped close to one another in measured support, the winner will almost certainly prevail capturing only a minority of votes.
Even Council member David Catania’s confirmation that he will run as an independent candidate in the November general election caused only a momentary stir. It merely complicated prognostications predicting ballot outcomes now and later.
Both candidate appeals to shrinking factions of voters in a primary election system limited to party-registered voters and bickering over credit for private sector contributions outside their domain have proven to be the ultimate public turn-offs. As early voting began this week, it is expected that low turnout will be the big winner.
First, D.C.’s old-fashioned system of limiting primary election participation to those signed up with a respective political party excludes nearly one-fifth of registered voters. The District is one of a rapidly dwindling number of jurisdictions excluding non-aligned voters from the opportunity to fully engage in choosing candidates.
Nationwide, 23 among 30 of the largest cities and 80 percent of all municipalities permit all voters to participate in primary elections, under a variety of voting schemes. The likelihood that adoption of an equal-access voting process would lead to diminished party allegiance, however, precludes the possibility that officeholders from the city’s dominant Democratic Party will approve legislation introduced by Council member David Grosso to modernize the local system.
With nearly half of all U.S. voters now self-identifying as independents, along with a majority of those under 35 years of age, alienation from partisan primaries will continue to grow. In California and New Jersey, for example, 21 percent of new voter registrations and 47 percent of all voters, respectively, are non-aligned. Heightened interest and increased participation requires equal access.
Although Catania’s general election campaign is likely to increase voter participation in what is expected to be a competitive race regardless of who is designated Democratic standard-bearer, this anomaly will only serve to mask the outlier nature of District election protocols.
Of equal importance, D.C. voters have suffered astonishingly amateurish and unimpressively contentious chatter by candidates. Preoccupied with arguing over who deserves credit for the city’s strong growth, economic development, cultural vitality and overall vibrancy, candidates accustomed to counting construction cranes have devolved to taking credit for them.
Voters are smart enough to know that city officials can’t claim much in that regard – except whether they create the government regulatory, operational mandate and business taxation environments allowing the private sector to flourish. For voters unwilling to renew Gray’s contract, Council member Jack Evans is the only primary candidate with both experience in and commitment to fostering business conditions producing continued progress.
Regardless of who is selected by whatever portion of voters determines the outcome, the local business community will arise early the next day to tend to the task of moving the city forward and keeping its economy humming.
The sooner local politicians understand their reliance on enterprise and entrepreneurs to fuel the city, and the imperative to open the political process to all, the better candidates they will become and the more interested we will be.