The D.C. primary election is coming fast


Voters arrive at Shepherd Elementary School for the April 2013 at-large special election. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Today is Tuesday, Feb. 4.

In precisely eight weeks and less than two hours, polls will close in the primary elections for D.C. mayor, chairman of the D.C. Council, six other council seats, delegate to the House of Representatives, “shadow” senator and representative, and various Democratic party posts.

Whoa, are you sure? Isn’t it a little a bit early for that?

Yup, positive. And yes, this year’s April 1 election is the earliest a primary election has been held in the District of Columbia since it gained home rule from Congress in the early 1970s. Until recently, party primaries were held in early September, following long, hot campaign summers.

So what changed?

The earlier primary is due to the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, passed by Congress in 2009, a law intended to make sure that soldiers and other U.S. citizens living overseas have the same right to vote as those living at home. Among its provisions is a requirement that local election authorities send absentee ballots to affected voters no later than 45 days before a “federal election” — which is any election where a federal office, like congressional delegate, is on the ballot. While the traditional early September D.C. primaries were usually a little less than 60 days prior to the general election, accounting for post-election processes like the counting of absentee and provisional votes, possible recounts and board certification meant there was no way to keep the primaries in September and send out general-election absentee ballots with enough time to comply with federal law.

But April? Does the primary really need to be that much earlier?

With the Justice Department threatening to take action against the city if it didn’t comply with the MOVE Act, the D.C. Council voted in 2011 to move primary day to the first Tuesday in April. The council reasoned that that date would allow for combined local and presidential primaries, would avoid an exodus of summer vacationers and would avoid conflicts with council budget negotiations.

That was in 2011. So what happened in 2012?

The city’s first April primary was held  April 3, 2012. The reviews were almost universally dismal. The earlier date disrupted the usual campaign rhythms, forcing candidates to circulate ballot petitions in December freezes instead of June breezes. The summer parade circuit became much less important, and with less daylight to work with, extensive door-knocking became less feasible. The long break before the general election also raised the prospect that an incumbent could lose in April and remain in office for nearly nine months. All told, the earlier cycle was harder on challengers, many believed, leading officials including Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan to refer to the early date as “incumbent protection.”

So why not change the date again?

Many, perhaps even most, city lawmakers would support moving the primary back, at least in non-presidential years. Last year, Mendelson (D) and Government Operations Committee Chairman Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) proposed a change that would move this year’s primary to June 10. But concerns on McDuffie’s committee meant he couldn’t move the bill to the full council. Among those objecting were Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who crafted the original bill moving the date to April, and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who had by that time announced her mayoral run and indicated that she had misgivings about changing the rules mid-game. A subsequent attempt to move the primary through emergency legislation failed after Mendelson had trouble rounding up the requisite nine votes.

But, come on, April Fools’ Day?

Yes, that fact has not gone unnoticed. This particular circumstance could have been avoided had Cheh’s bill borrowed language from the District law setting the old September primary, as well as the federal law setting national general election, which both specify the Tuesday after the first Monday of the month. But the new primary date is simply the first Tuesday in April.

So it’s going to be quite the couple of months.

You said it. Even with the unusually early primary, the mayoral race, to say nothing of the council races, has been unusually late-developing. Partially, that’s because incumbent Vincent C. Gray waited until nearly halfway through the ballot-qualification period to announce his candidacy. With candidates, campaign donors and reporters all playing wait-and-see, the race could not take definite shape. Now we’re in a sprint of a campaign season, with a full slate of campaign forums, straw polls, meet-and-greets and much more now underway. Keep in mind, voting will actually start two weeks before Primary Day, with several early voting centers opening on March 17.

Good grief! How do I learn more about the election and the candidates?

The D.C. Board of Elections Web site has basic information on the election and a list of candidates. Start acquainting yourself with the mayoral candidates right here at washingtonpost.com, and stay tuned for a series of profiles of the major candidates and a look at incumbent Gray’s record. For day-to-day updates on campaign news, follow me on Twitter and right here at District of DeBonis — particularly my daily DeMorning Links roundups. And even if you’re not the type to seek out a neighborhood meet-and-greet or candidates forum, don’t be surprised if over the next eight weeks, as you walk around town or visit the grocery store or even lounge at home on a Saturday afternoon, the candidates manage to find you.

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 · February 4