Grousing ensued three years ago when the D.C. Council altered the city’s schedule for government-financed closed-voting primary elections limited to registered party members choosing candidates to compete in the all-access November general election.
Council members moved the 2012 political party primaries to the first week of April from the previously traditional early September date. Complaints reached a frenzied crescendo leading up to the mayoral-headlining primary this year.
Despite all the fuss and consternation, providing more time between party primaries and the general election has proven beneficial.
Most important, it has the potential to lead to either an indirect change in the process or eventual election reform officeholders from the overwhelmingly dominant Democratic Party will continue to adamantly resist approving. Party officials enjoy possessing the practical power to essentially determine election outcomes without much challenge from outside the confines of those who are party-registered — while discouraging an increase in independent voters.
Revising the primary election date was prompted by congressional passage in 2009 of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. Designed to ensure adequate time for absentee voting by those living abroad and overseas military personnel, the law requires general election ballots including a federal office be provided no later than 45 days prior to Election Day. The old schedule was too tight to ensure compliance when post-primary absentee or provisional ballot counting and possible recounts could delay certification of party slates.
This mandate affects all standard biennial D.C. elections — both presidential election years and those including the city’s congressional delegate, due to the latter being elected every two years.
To comply with the law and avoid a Department of Justice lawsuit, the D.C. Council moved party primaries to the first Tuesday in April, effective in 2012.
Most states among the vast majority currently compliant with the MOVE Act conduct primary elections before or on June 24. While the first week of April may be a bit too early, the city is well advised to schedule party primaries prior to Memorial Day and the initiation of summer vacations and seasonal travel. D.C. Council desire to not have primary elections interfere with the intensive legislative period determining the District’s annual budget, completed prior to the mid-July summer recess, is also smart.
Candidate complaints of having to collect ballot-qualifying signatures during cold winter months or raise campaign funds during the holiday season are mere pitiful whining when measured against guaranteeing fair voter access.
Concern that conducting party primaries in the spring results in too long a period of lame duck status for defeated incumbents ignores term-limited mayors and retiring or otherwise departing Council members.
Blaming historically low party-registered turnout in this year’s primary because of the date overlooks long declining voter participation rates.
Ironically, conducting party primaries and general elections outside a narrow few-weeks-only window even benefits victorious party nominees. They have time to regroup and reorganize, as well as reenergize supporters and replenish campaign funds required to get their message out to all voters leading up to the general election. Rather than elections turning into a condensed calendar blur before increasingly disengaged residents, candidates have additional and adequate time to appeal to voters for support.
The ultimate benefit, however, may be less apparent — but one that grumbling, and worried, Democratic Party leaders don’t much like.
Distancing primary and general elections creates greater opportunity for independent candidates to mount effective campaigns. More robust candidate competitions and energized discussions of diverse ideas would well serve voters and the city, and diminish the influence of a scandal-ridden and impropriety-tolerant political class.
It might even hasten the day when D.C.’s increasingly arcane party-registered-only exclusionary primaries will finally end, as in a growing number of states and for the vast majority of municipal elections. No longer would registering with a political party be the price of full participation in selecting local officials.
This year’s mayoral race with a competitive independent candidate is proof of that possibility.