June 1, 2012

Today’s Democratic Party in the District of Columbia is what the Communist Party was to the former Soviet Union: a sure path to power. Is that a good thing?

Not the way D.C. Democrats get themselves elected. They achieve that much-sought end through a closed-primary system, in which only registered Democrats get to vote. Non-Democrats are told to take a hike.

The numbers tell the story. According to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics’ April statistics, 346,682, or 75 percent, of the city’s registered voters are Democrats. That means the closed-primary system excludes roughly 115,466 non-Democratic and/or unaffiliated District voters from the democratic process.

City election laws ought to empower citizens, not take power out of their hands, as the current system does. The closed primary concentrates power within one party. That must change.

If party primaries are to remain part of the democratic process, then all voters should be allowed to participate in them.

That the Democratic Party controls the levers of power in this city is not debatable. Since the Home Rule Act was adopted nearly 40 years ago, every elected mayor and D.C. Council chairman, and most of the elected at-large and ward council members, have been Democrats.

This one-party dominance is not only politically unhealthy; it’s a turnoff.

Promising young candidates are choosing to opt out of the political process rather than deal with entrenched Democratic incumbents who are flush with campaign funds from special-interest groups. Voters, angry with a stale field of candidates groomed and pushed by Democratic political operatives, are staying at home on Election Day.

Turnout figures for April’s D.C. primary help tell the tale:

●Only 17 percent of Democrats bothered to vote in the primary.

●Ward 2, with 29,078 registered Democrats, sent a mere 2,947 voters to the polls to vote for incumbent council member Jack Evans, who ran unopposed.

●Ward 4 council member Muriel Bowser won her party’s renomination with 7,541 Democratic votes. That’s out of 48,321 registered Democrats in her ward.

●Ward 7 council member Yvette Alexander had similar results. Out of 46,958 registered Democrats in her ward, only 3,730 bothered to vote for her — and they represented a minority (42 percent) of the votes cast in her primary.

●And what of Marion Barry? The former mayor ran away with his Ward 8 council race with 73 percent of the vote. But wait: He won with 5,116 votes out of 44,584 registered Ward 8 Democrats.

Citywide results were no better.

Council member Vincent B. Orange won his at-large race with 23,719 votes, or 40 percent of the Democratic votes cast. But remember, citywide there are nearly 350,000 Democrats.

A city that renders 25 percent of its registered voters voiceless and voteless because of a ­closed-primary system can hardly lay claim to being a fount of democracy.

The way to go is with a system that allows all voters to participate in a party’s primary.

Better still, let’s junk the primary system run by the parties and go to a “top two” primary. That system, now in use in California and Washington state, matches the top two vote-getters from an open primary in the general election. That’s right: All candidates, regardless of party, run in the primary. And all voters, regardless of party, get to vote for them. The field gets cut down to two candidates, regardless of party affiliation, who then duke it out in the fall.

If, for example, April’s primary had been a top two primary, voters might be looking at a Vincent Orange vs. Sekou Biddle at-large race in November, while Yvette Alexander could be facing off against Tom Brown in Ward 7.

The aim here is to open up the process. Let more people in, both as candidates and as voters.

There’s too much tired blood in our system. Some of it has gone bad. Cases in point: Harry Thomas Jr., our convicted and soon-to-be-jailed former Ward 5 Democratic council member, and protagonists in the ongoing federal probes of the campaigns of Democratic Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Democratic Council Chairman Kwame Brown. Two Gray Democratic campaign officials pleaded guilty to felonies last week. More may be waiting in the wings.

The current closed-party primary keeps the riffraff in and the cleansing power of broad voter participation out.

Let’s reverse the process.

kingc@washpost.com