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It’s time to open up the District’s primaries

By Thomas M. Smith,

This month, as the District’s ethics board was rebuking a D.C. Council member for violating the city’s code of conduct, two other council members were introducing legislation to provide some public financing of city elections. This was the latest in a series of attempts to exorcise the ethical demons plaguing District politics. If lawmakers really want to clean up city government, however, there’s a simpler step they can take: Open up the District’s closed partisan primaries, which discourage talented people from challenging entrenched incumbents.

In 19 states, including Virginia, voters are already allowed to participate in the primary of their choice without regard to party affiliation. In these states, political organizations still play an important get-out-the-vote role, but they have less control over the final outcome. That’s because citizens can vote for any candidate they like — without being limited by increasingly artificial party labels — once they are alone in the voting booth. It’s time to give D.C. voters the same opportunity.

Under the current system, Democratic insiders have a stranglehold on this one-party town. The District’s closed primary process has created a breeding ground for politicians who, in rising through the party ranks, look at public service as a personal entitlement and are careful to reward their fellow activists to ensure future support.

Worse, the closed primary process essentially disenfranchises the nearly 25 percent of D.C. voters who choose not to register as Democrats, since winning a Democratic primary in this city is tantamount to winning the general election. That means 125,000 non-Democrats — including roughly 87,000 unaffiliated voters and 32,000 Republicans — have next to no say in who represents them.

The damage this does to the civic life of the city is clear. Despite the convenience of early voting and same-day registration, fewer residents are voting in city elections in recent years. Even Democratic primary turnout is spiraling downward; just 17 percent of registered Democrats voted in last April’s primary. Turnout in general elections is on an even more perilous path, no surprise given the lack of real competition on the November ballot. It’s hard to be very excited about voting when the result is always known in advance.

With so few people voting, candidates need attract only a small segment of Democratic support to win. The hard-fought 2010 mayoral contest between then-Council Chairman Vincent Gray and the incumbent, Adrian Fenty, is a case in point. Gray bested Fenty by 13,000 votes in a Democratic primary in which only a third of the city’s Democrats bothered to vote. All told, Gray received 73,000 votes — roughly 14 percent of the total electorate. Would the outcome have been different if the city’s 125,000 non-Democrats could have crossed over and voted in the primary?

It would not be such a great leap for D.C. lawmakers to adopt an open primary system. The April 23 at-large special election will place all candidates on the same ballot, and, for a change, all voters, regardless how they are registered, will walk away knowing they had an equal say in who represents them on the council. How refreshing.

Voter participation is key to the legitimacy of any government, and the closed primary elections in the District contributes to an erosion of public support for local government. It’s time for D.C. lawmakers to unleash the competitive power of the voting booth as a way to promote good government. This may put their own futures at risk, I admit. But wouldn’t it be worthwhile to get back to the business of building a better city instead of spending so much time dealing with the bad behavior of their colleagues?

The writer is the immediate past chairman of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee.

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