While a historic tidal wave of Republican wins for both U.S. Senate and House seats as well as gubernatorial and legislative contests in red, blue and purple states occurred last week, D.C. was setting a record of its own.
With the election of two At-Large D.C. Council members by a distinct minority of voters, a majority of the 13 officeholders were first elected, and even re-elected, the same way. At least nine current Council or Council-elect members have won with far less than a majority in either general or special elections in crowded At-Large or Ward races.
These same politicians have failed to reform local election procedures.
Let’s examine the facts.
In this month’s election of dual At-Large D.C. Council seats, both Democratic incumbent Anita Bonds and newly elected Elissa Silverman won only 24 and 12 percent of the vote, respectively. These preliminary results include early voting and Election Day totals as released by the D.C. Board of Elections and factor in the number of “undervotes” by those selecting fewer than two allowed ballot choices. Later this week a final report including absentee and provisional ballots will be issued.
Silverman actually “finished third” in the crowded 15-candidate field – trailing nearly two-to-one the number of votes not cast in the race.
Even eliminating them – primarily generated by those “bullet-voting” for a single candidate – as election officials will do in the final report, the numbers don’t change much. Counting only actual votes cast, Bonds won almost 31 percent, with nearly 72,000 votes and matching the percentage she won when first elected in a 2012 special election. Silverman, however, won only 16 percent, with slightly more than 36,000 votes from 150,000 voters.
Running this time as an “independent” in order to qualify for one of two At-Large seats reserved by the Home Rule Charter for non-majority party candidates, Silverman was defeated last year as a Democrat in a special election for an open At-Large position created by Phil Mendelson’s special election ascension to Council Chair. Mendelson himself was first elected in 1998 with slightly more than one-third of the votes cast.
The other two At-Large D.C. Council members also won their seats with a minority of votes. Democrat Vincent Orange won a special election in 2011 with 29 percent of the vote, winning re-election in 2012 with 38 percent alongside Democrat-turned-independent David Grosso, who won only 20 percent of the vote.
Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser first won a special election for her current Ward 4 seat in 2007 with 40 percent, while Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander was first elected with 34 percent. Kenyan McDuffie won his initial race to represent Ward 5 in a 2012 special election with 44 percent.
The power of incumbency and one-party dominance results in Ward representatives almost always re-elected by a large majority – unlike At-Large members competing with third-party candidates and an increasing number of pseudo-independents battling for set-aside “minority” spots.
Fixing this preponderance of low-vote victories is simple. Approved by California voters and implemented in 2012, similar to other jurisdictions, a “Top Two” primary in which all candidates compete and all voters participate is the best approach. Noting candidate party affiliation, if any, the two garnering the greatest number of votes proceed to the general election – unless one candidate receives an outright majority.
No less a partisan stalwart than New York Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer has called for nationwide adoption of the system. Other approaches, such as “ranked voting,” are complex and transform voting into casino-style endeavors.
Adoption would also eliminate minority-vote party primary wins often tantamount to election in a city where three-fourths of registered voters are Democrats. Most important, it would allow full and fair participation in the entire election process by non-party-affiliated independent voters, representing up to one-fourth in parts of D.C. – likely reversing increasingly dismal turnout.
Otherwise, D.C. will continue to be represented by those elected by only a few.