They were in a hurry.
Even prior to official certification of the November general election results was announced last week by the city’s election board, the D.C. Council voted to again rearrange the balloting calendar. Never mind that the next regular election cycle won’t occur until 2016.
This self-serving legislation should be labeled the “Incumbent Protection Act.”
Local politicians demonstrated their priority is preserving the power of incumbency. They continue to resist taking action to reform the current election scheme from a voter perspective.
Their prevailing political instinct is making campaigning more convenient and winning re-election more certain for themselves.
Council members rushed to overwhelmingly approve a bill to shift the city’s primary election date back to September from April. The earlier date had been prompted by a federal requirement to allow more time for absentee ballot receipt-and-return from overseas voters, primarily military personnel. A final vote on barely meeting that rule is scheduled for next Tuesday.
Defeated was a more sensible proposal by Council member Jack Evans to schedule primaries in June. His legislation addressed concerns that the April date is too early and creates too long a potential “lame duck” period when an officeholder is defeated in a primary.
Had the plan by Evans been adopted, D.C. would conduct its primaries later than or contemporaneous with 31 states. Most important, a June date also offered the prospect of sufficient time for general election campaigning by minor party and independent candidates alongside dominant-party Democratic primary-winning incumbents and hopefuls – allowing for adequate candidate comparison by voters.
Instead, Council members comically attempted to convince that their action would reduce the inherent advantages of incumbents seeking another term. That assertion necessitates believing that electoral viability should be restricted to those campaigning in the party primary in which nearly all Council members compete – except for Democratic shape-shifting “pseudo-independents” holding two of the four At-Large seats reserved for “non-majority” candidates.
Perhaps most humorous, D.C. Council chair Phil Mendelson and Ward 5 representative Kenyan McDuffie publicly proclaimed that reverting to the former calendar would reverse the record-setting decline in voter turnout in recent elections. A range of reasons are responsible for plummeting levels of voter interest and participation – and cynicism regarding craven efforts to institutionalize incumbent advantage will now enlarge that list. In addition, skepticism that moving the general election to the day after the Labor Day holiday will make voting more convenient is also warranted.
Most startling was the speed with which District politicians proved eager to act quickly for their personal benefit – while ignoring D.C.’s increasingly rarefied exclusionary election system that prevents one-in-four registered voters from fully participating and allows for the election of candidates winning only a minority of votes. The vast majority of U.S. municipalities elect local officials a better way – predominantly in non-partisan primaries with all voters able to participate regardless of party registration, if any.
Not so in the District. In fact, a majority of D.C. Council members were first elected and even re-elected with a paltry plurality of support, either in the determinative Democratic primary or crowded-field special elections. Given that 14 hopefuls immediately picked up candidate petition forms on only the first day for upcoming special elections in Ward 4 and Ward 8, that number is almost certain to grow.
Elected officials should be focusing their attention on reforming a voting system that allows that to happen, not conniving to preserve their power and position.
Primary contests with all candidates competing for votes followed by a “Top Two” general election run-off is the best way to achieve fair, open and modern elections.
Registering with a political party should not be the price of full participation in the electoral process, and reform should repair a regimen that puts politicians in office without winning a majority of votes.
In a city constantly complaining about the lack of full congressional representation, it’s time for D.C. to fix itself first.