The move of the city’s primary election date from September to April has meant some big changes on the city political scene: campaigns are gearing up sooner, fundraising calls are coming earlier and — get this — signatures for ballot petitions are going to start being collected in less than two weeks.
The earlier primary also appears to have ended a longstanding city political practice: the direct election of Democratic party officials.
For decades, Democratic voters have cast ballots for D.C. Democratic State Committee members and national committee members every four years alongside their primary votes for president, D.C. Council and other partisan offices. Quietly, earlier this year, the DCDSC informed the Board of Elections and Ethics that the party would instead elect its members at a party convention or caucus.
The move away from direct elections has rankled a number of party activists, who believe the change benefits party insiders at the expense of the grassroots. But current party leaders say that they had no choice but to make the change, claiming the earlier elections would break party rules by coming amid the selection process for delegates to August’s national convention.
Citing “consultations with the Democratic National Committee,” DCDSC attorney Donald Dinan informed the elections board on Aug. 16 that it would opt out of the April 3 primary “in order to bring its elections and procedures more in conformity with that of the other states of these United States.”
Dinan added, “No other state has its election of party officers during the delegate selection process for the obvious reason to avoid the potential disruption to that process which an election could have.”
DCDSC Chairwoman Anita Bonds said Thursday that keeping direct elections was “not an option” given national rules. “We’re an arm of the DNC,” she said. “We would not for one minute consider a change unless it was something we had to look at.”
Committee members say they were not told of the decision until it had already been made. Bonds said committee members did not vote on the decision to abandon direct elections before Dinan sent his letter. But she said members will vote in January on the scheduling of a party convention or caucus — likely to occur after the November general election.
Bonds said she expects any of the city’s 340,000 registered Democratic voters would be welcome to participate in such a convention or caucus.
But John Capozzi, a former DCDSC member and veteran activist, questioned whether the change is truly necessary under party rules and noted that many fewer residents will participate in a party convention.
“This is why we need new leadership in the [D.C.] Democratic Party,” he said. “Deciding to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of D.C. Democrats is just plain wrong.”
Dinan said in an interview that having members elected in the middle of delegate selection votes carries a “very obvious potential of creating havoc.”
“If the other team got elected, they would want to undo everything that had been done, to put in their own people,” he said. “It’s highly discouraged by the DNC.”
The DNC did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
City Republicans will continue electing their party members in the primary next year, said Alysoun McLaughlin, spokeswoman for the elections board.
The Democratic party elections have generally been low-key over the years, with most of the drama concerning which slate of candidates can come up with the snappiest name to appeal to Democratic voters, who, by and large, know absolutely nothing about internal party politics. In 2004, an outsider slate unexpectedly won a bunch of seats after naming itself “Running Against Bush,” in honor of the then-incumbent president.
Capozzi, who was part of the “Running Against Bush” slate, said the change guarantees the process will be dominated by insiders.
“When you’ve always done something a certain way, because it’s a good way,” he said, “you better have a good reason for changing it.”