Uncertainty over 2014 D.C. primary

With barely more than 10 months until District residents are scheduled to vote, uncertainty persists on precisely when the city will hold its primary elections next year.

A D.C. Council committee on Wednesday heard testimony on a bill that would move the 2014 primary date from April 1, as currently scheduled, to June 10 — a move supported by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) that is meant to address concerns that the early April primaries have badly disrupted the traditional rhythms of the city’s campaign season.

But the city’s attorney general, elections officials and members of the council clashed over what date would be most appropriate for the primaries and if they should be moved at all, considering planning is already underway for next year’s elections.

“I have a tremendous unease about changing our laws when we’re in the throes of an election season,” civic activist Dorothy Brizill said at the hearing. “I think that you shouldn’t change the rules in the middle of the game unless there’s an overriding reason or a compelling reason to do so.”

But Brizill said she felt there were in fact “compelling reasons” to change the date, including easing the time pressure on elections officials and candidates to prepare for next year’s contest.

The primary date change would be the second one made by the council in the past two years. Prior to 2012, the District held its local primaries in early September. The change to April was made in 2011 to comply with a federal law requiring local governments to schedule sufficient time between primary and general elections to allow overseas voters, including members of the military, to cast absentee ballots.

Lawmakers chose April, according to a council report, because they wanted to allow for combined local and presidential primaries, to avoid the issue of summer vacationers leaving town, and to avoid conflicts with council budget negotiations, which hit full swing in late April.

“I don’t think anybody liked it, and for multiple reasons,” Mendelson said last month. “Forcing everyone to campaign during winter is difficult.” Also, he said, “it is not good practice to have lame ducks in office for eight months.”

Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan testified in support of the bill, citing the extended lame-duck period and the need to shorten the time between the primary and general elections. A later primary, he said, would “give potential candidates more time to gather the necessary signatures for petitions, to raise funds and to allow the electorate to get to know them.”

“It will also mean they will not have to spend their Christmas holidays gathering signatures, funds, and supporters,” he said.

But Clifford D. Tatum, executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections, said he was concerned that some polling places might not be available in mid-June — particularly schools, which would be in the process of closing for the summer — and that the constantly changing primary dates could depress voter turnout.

Tatum suggested a date in mid-May, which would be suitable both for presidential primaries and strictly local races. “The idea is to pick a date and stay with that date,” he said.

Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the Government Operations Committee that is handling the bill, said he was “not sure if the April date is the optimal date.”

“Obviously consistency is very important,” he said. “But, I think, given that this is the first time we had the local primary in April, there’s still time to figure out if we’re on the right course.”

Colleague Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) — who launched a mayoral campaign in March, before talk of moving the primary date emerged — sharply questioned Nathan and Tatum about the proposal, suggesting that the original rationale for a April primary remained valid.

“It’s wholly unacceptable not to know what the election date is in 2014,” she said, adding that the constantly changing election date is “akin to a banana republic.”

Earlier in the day, Mayor Vincent C. Gray — who has not yet decided whether he will seek reelection next year — expressed support for the change, saying “it will give more people an opportunity to participate.”

Bowser, who is among five candidates who have registered committees with campaign finance authorities for the 2014 cycle, largely refrained from referring to her own run during the hearing but noted that she “certainly could have invested in materials that had a certain date on them.”

“I didn’t do that,” she added. “I know how this council operates.”

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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