2,600 D.C. voters switch to the Democratic Party ahead of mayoral primary

By Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; B01

Almost 2,600 D.C. voters have switched parties to become Democrats this year in anticipation of the Sept. 14 primary -- a contest that traditionally elects the mayor of a city where 75 percent of voters are Democrats.

Monday was the last day to change parties to vote in the primaries. Preliminary numbers showed that 2,068 voters who declared "no party," often dubbed independent, and 308 Republicans changed their affiliation to Democrat from January through Monday morning, according to the Board of Elections and Ethics. Several hundred members of the Statehood Green and other parties changed their affiliations, too.

Although a new election law will allow early voting and same-day voter registration, voters can't switch parties within 30 days of an election. Final numbers of those who switched will not be available until next week because the elections board allows 10 days to receive voter-registration applications postmarked Monday, said Alysoun McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the elections board.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, his main opponent, have been pushing to get more voters registered to participate in the Democratic primary. Efforts by Fenty, who is expected to be endorsed Tuesday by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), have been much more aggressive, with go-go music concerts that require concertgoers to have filled out voter-registration applications to enter.

At the urging of Ronald Moten, a longtime friend of Fenty's who has become a chief strategist of his campaign and is leading the go-go promotions, the mayor recently blocked a bill that would have made it a crime to pay people to vote.

Last month, the council approved emergency legislation by member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) that would have adopted federal prohibitions against paying someone to vote or register or accepting payment to vote or to register. It also would have made it a crime to use a false name to register to vote. Violators would have been fined as much as $10,000 and have faced five years in prison.

But Moten worried that Gray and the council were trying to rush the bill through to quash the mayor's go-go concerts, designed to get low-income African American residents registered to vote. Moten, co-founder of the nonprofit Peaceoholics, which has flourished with millions of dollars in contracts under Fenty, said the mayor's camp generated 500 new registered voters Saturday at three go-go events.

According to council staff members, Fenty blocked the election fraud legislation through a pocket veto because the council is on summer recess.

Moten said Fenty's pocket veto does not mean he condones vote-buying. "He believes people who pay people to vote should be locked up, and I agree, too," Moten said. "But Gray and Cheh clearly passed a bill that was not clear on what the rules are, and they did this at the last minute of a tight election."

Moten said numerous local candidates, including Gray, hold events at which they offer free food to try to get residents registered to vote.

But Mo Elleithee, a Gray strategist, criticized Fenty's decision: "We knew that he had no problem bringing pay-to-play politics to the mayor's office. Now it appears he has no problem bringing it to the ballot box."

Sean Madigan, a spokesman for Fenty's campaign, said: "That is a ridiculous assertion. The number one goal is to make sure this election is fair and transparent, and adding murky language to our election laws just weeks from the primary is not the way to do it."

The Fenty campaign has also quietly but just as assertively gone after undeclared voters to persuade them to get involved in the primary.

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