Dismay and disinterest won the day in D.C.’s primary election by a record-setting margin. Similar to the mayoral contest determining the overwhelmingly dominant Democratic Party’s nominee for mayor, it wasn’t even close.
Voters didn’t much like their choices.
Had they been sufficiently motivated to breeze through one of the 143 precinct locations, they would have discovered more poll workers than the sparse turnout of voters at most moments during the 13-hour ordeal. Despite it taking nearly five hours for the startlingly and chronically dysfunctional D.C. Board of Elections to complete its preliminary tally after the polls closed, voter dissatisfaction with their ballot box options had long been apparent.
Barely one-in-four, slightly less than 25 percent, political party-registered voters eligible to cast ballots in the city’s April 1 partisan primary election did so. In 2010, the participation rate was 37 percent, with 137,586 voting – including nearly 134,000 in the Democratic primary. According to unofficial returns, this year’s totals won’t crack six digits as far fewer than 100,000 of the 369,035 primary-eligible registrants showed up at the polls.
Never before in the city’s electoral history have so few chosen to vote in a mayoral primary. Throughout the day and across the city it was evident that voter turnout would produce a jaw-dropping paucity of votes.
It was the first time turnout has ever been lower than the prior nadir of 32 percent in 1998. Pending the final tally, it is likely that the actual raw number voting will exceed only that of 1986 – when there were one-third fewer eligible voters among a much-smaller District population.
Indications of a looming electoral debacle were evident when early voting poll numbers were announced last weekend. The two-week-long opportunity to vote in advance enticed approximately 37 percent fewer to do so than in the previous mayoral primary, despite an expanded number of voting locations and no notable differential in the number of party-aligned partisans. In 2010, more than 22,000 party-registered voters cast ballots in advance of primary election day. This year only slightly more than 14,000 were reported.
These substantial declines had been forecast by the campaign manager for incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray, who was defeated for Democratic Party re-nomination in a wide margin loss to D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser. Accuracy in that prognostication, however, was small comfort in light of the drubbing Gray experienced and his nine-month lame duck tenure ahead.
The real reason for the plummeting participation is apparent. Conjecture that a much earlier primary date – moved up sooner-than-required from the traditional September date in order to comply with federal voting rules designed to better accommodate overseas voters and deployed military personnel – was the cause of the embarrassing lack of engagement misses the mark.
Too many voters believed the incumbent had won election in 2010 by deception and cheating, the “too green” leading alternative failed to instill confidence she was either experienced enough or adequately prepared to take the helm, and the rapidly fading also-ran competitors weren’t worth the effort.
More than that, though, was a thing worse.
When both Bowser and Gray came to realize that their battle would be predominantly waged in targeted areas of the city’s eastern portion, all pretense of running genuinely citywide campaigns ceased in the final weeks. Whole swaths of the city began to feel more like observers than stakeholders.
Bowser’s theme of “All Eight Wards” and Gray’s hackneyed “One City” slogan became self-parodies. When Gray paraded around select neighborhoods with former mayor Marion Barry and countenanced the Council member’s unique brand of racially tinged commentary it was simply too much for too many, including supporters. Bowser seemed to always be nearby, as if the rest of the city mattered little. Both candidates failed to inspire or excite voters, depressing turnout and heightening disgust.
Responsibility for the desultory result lies with them. The response from the voters of the city could not have been more crystal clear.