D.C.’s new geopolitics

November 26, 2012

D.C. elections officials today released the final, pre-certification count for the general election. Now that the final tallies are in, we can have a true apples-to-apples look at how turnout and voting patterns changed in the past four years.

About 27,000 more District residents voted this year than voted in the last presidential general election in 2008. But because the voter registration base grew even more in that time, the turnout percentage dropped slightly, from 62.5 percent to 60.8 percent.

President Barack Obama likewise finished with more D.C. votes but a marginally lower percentage than four years ago. He won 21,270 more votes but garnered (only?) 90.9 percent this time versus 92.5 percent in 2008.

Michael A. Brown, who lost his bid for a second term as an independent at-large D.C. Council member, saw his total slip from 71,720 votes to fewer than 58,000. Winning challenger David Grosso (I) won 78,123 votes, a winning margin of more than 20,000 votes. Meanwhile, incumbent at-large Democrat Vincent Orange pulled in 148,595 votes in the pick-two council race, but that was nearly 24,000 fewer votes than the similarly situated Kwame R. Brown racked up in 2008.

What’s more fascinating is looking at where the voter growth was. Shortly after the election, Tim Craig and I looked at whether Grosso’s win indicated a broader shift in city voting power, away from high-voting wards 3 and 4 on the city’s northern end toward fast-growing Ward 6 east and south of downtown.

In an apples-to-apples comparison of presidential vote totals, Ward 6 indeed blew away all other wards with 27 percent growth. With just shy of 70,000 votes, it is now the District’s biggest single source of votes (at least in a presidential year). Some, but not all, of the growth is due to last year’s redistricting, which resulted in Ward 6 being slightly larger relative to the other wards. But as the precinct map above shows, there was massive raw growth in the area around Nationals Park (roughly 1,400 more votes), the NoMa neighborhood (another 1,400 more) and the H Street corridor (about 1,000 more).


(Data from D.C. Board of Elections; table by Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

The traditional vote-rich wards — 3, 4, 5 and 7 — have simply not kept up. Wards 3 and 7 both grew about 6 percent, outpacing their registration growth but not by much. Ward 5 saw 10 percent growth in both registration and presidential voting, driven in no small part by the ward’s fast-growing southwestern precincts. Ward 4, the city’s electoral hinge for at least a decade, has in four years gone from the top-voting ward to No. 2, garnering modest 7.5 percent growth.

What does this mean for city politics? Hard to say just yet. It’s far from clear how many of those new Ward 6 voters (and new voters generally) will show up in the off-year mayoral/council chair elections. In the 2010 elections, Ward 4 was still the top-voting ward, with wards 3 and 5 right up there, too.

But take note of this: In the 2008 general election, as in the 2010 primary and general elections, the number of votes in the black-majority wards (4, 5, 7 and 8) outweighed the votes coming out of the white-majority wards (1, 2, 3 and 6). This year, more presidential votes came out of the white wards (148,193) than the black wards (145,571).

Some caveats are in order for sure — the georacial political split is more complicated than “white wards” and “black wards,” and the electorate in a closed Democratic primary is tilted toward the latter. But the numbers herald a citywide race not so far in the future where a black candidate with a base in high-voting Ward 4 faces a white candidate with a base in high-voting Ward 6, and the result would be very, very close.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · November 26, 2012