District-neighboring Montgomery County, Md., provides a cautionary tale for the future of D.C. elections.
The county, similar in Democratic domination and one-party governance, has produced frustrated and confused voters this election season. It is the result of term limits phasing out incumbents, something D.C. has smartly not enacted, and generous campaign public financing, a more extravagant one to be implemented for District elections in the future.
What bewilders voters to the north is the huge number of candidates vying for newly “open” seats. Thirty-eight candidates are competing to be the Democratic nominee for only four at-large County Council seats and six Democrats are seeking the party’s nomination for county executive.
As in the District, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to later gliding through the general election.
Even highly engaged civic-minded types who studiously attend candidate forums, track competitor positions, and attentively follow local elections complain it is simply too difficult to wade through the morass of aspirants. Or keep names attached to faces or policies aligned with those names and faces.
Less attuned voters will likely surrender to being perplexed and abandon actually participating at the polls.
What is worse, though, is regardless of who and how many vote, such crowded litanies of candidates almost always produce a singular result. Politicos get elected winning only a minority of votes, oftentimes not within range of a majority, and from within the confines of one party’s restricted contest.
The resulting diminishment of electoral legitimacy is already the case in D.C., where the nearly 20 percent of enrolled independent voters not affiliated with a political party are prohibited from fully participating in elections. This is due to the city’s increasingly archaic “closed primary” system in which only party-registered voters get to play the game. In the mid-city Dupont-Logan-Shaw neighborhoods home to a sizable number of LGBT voters, the number of independents is higher – at fully one-in-four registered voters.
The danger for both “MoCo” candidates and challengers in future D.C. elections, as the District has rightly designated the ballot box as the city’s term limit mechanism, is simple.
Absent an open election system and either an inclusive nonpartisan primary and subsequent top-two run-off, or a more complex “ranked-voting” scheme, D.C. is headed toward electing officials with an ever-shrinking share of votes.
It’s what now happens with the two farcical “set-aside” D.C. Council at-large seats reserved for non-majority-party candidates. Democrats, with a makeover that wouldn’t get them an audition at a small-town drag show, switch affiliation to “independent” and win the specially reserved seats in crowded fields on one ballot only, typically garnering a percentage barely above 10 percent.
This now isolated phenomenon will become standard if the intentional goal of the coming outlay of an incredible largess of cash to be doled out under future campaign public financing occurs. After all, the notion is to encourage people to run for office and, if that is the actual result, there will be bountiful ballots like the one over the state line.
A ludicrously extravagant total allocation of $75,000 will be conveyed to any Council candidate once they sign up, collect a low number of signatures to qualify for the ballot, and raise a few small donations from fewer people than you probably invited to your last house party. At a whopping projected cost of $25 million-or-more each cycle, the idea is that lots of people will toss hats in the ring.
D.C. incumbents, of course, like – and benefit from – this nonsense. More likely to reject taxpayer funds due to their ability to more quickly raise larger amounts of cash, they will instead gain advantage in crowded fields of challengers requiring either they only command an ever-shrinking voter base or serve as a familiar entity for confused voters confronted with a plethora of candidate identities.
Unless D.C.’s antiquated election system is reformed, those elected by the few will find their political credibility shrink among the many.