Elections in the nation’s capital are an embarrassment.
Not only does it take until the wee hours of the next morning for the D.C. Board of Elections to provide even a preliminary count of the increasingly declining and historically low percentages of voters casting ballots, local electoral contests continue to be conducted as if D.C. is a sleepy small town.
This reality was underscored in recent days by continued controversy over so-called mayoral “debates” that erupted again among candidates. Even though the types of events they’re talking about are not, in fact, actual debates at all.
Mayoral candidates are currently encouraged to traipse around town attending a mind-numbing and seemingly endless series of “forums” conducted by small citizens groups and special interest organizations that only startlingly tiny numbers of people attend or garner much attention from outside their particular ranks or exclusionary network of supporters. These events might as well be held in the dark in a locked room somewhere secret, offering scant access to unaffiliated residents and generating little interest among regular voters.
No real-world, high-profile debates are conducted and none are televised or widely broadcast so as to be a valuable source of information or provide an opportunity for voters to understand how candidates stack up against one another on the critical issues confronting city government.
In fact, let’s stop referring to these “panel discussions” held by self-anointed and self-interested groups as “debates” – which, by conventional definition, they are not. These narrow-audience minor-league events can continue as an on-the-ground face-to-face supplemental opportunity for candidates to directly interact with specific groups of voters in more intimate settings. But they provide a poor substitute for communicating with voters as a whole or focusing the larger community on local elections and issues.
Rather than treating election discourse as if a discussion of condo association bylaws or a meeting of a private club, a regular series of mayoral debates should be conducted by appropriate nonpartisan organizations as is common in other major cities. If District officials want to be able to maintain a poker face when advocating for statehood for the District, local elections for the top political position should include the type of public debate common among states.
Such events, of course, are not a panacea for all that ails local elections or causes low voter interest. Broadcast candidate debates can be as vapid and vacuous as any other type of political event. But they offer a high value opportunity for the broadest number of residents to pay attention, get engaged and discover who the candidates are and what each would do if elected.
Most importantly, rather than allowing candidates to dictate the terms of public discussion – including the type, timing and number of events and the ballot-qualified contenders allowed to participate – candidates should be told how such events are going to be conducted by nonpartisan sponsors.
D.C. should start acting like a city all grown up and conducting communal conversation in a modern and effective manner. Every effort should be undertaken to involve the entire community in the electoral process.
There are additional remedies critical to improving interest and increasing participation in elections. Allowing all voters – including those not aligned with a political party and registered as independent voters – to fully participate in elections is at the top of the list. This means adopting an election protocol of the variable types that growing numbers of states and the vast majority of municipalities have adopted.
Instead of civic leaders and city residents alike bemoaning the lack of interest and engagement by the citizenry in public affairs and the dismal and declining participation of even registered voters in local elections, it’s time to do something about it. D.C. cannot expect improvement without first allowing full voter participation and ensuring genuine candidate debates.
We should make applying for the job a more rigorous process involving the entire electorate. It’s the only way we all win.