D.C. ruling to keep 'closed primary' system deals blow to Fenty campaign

In a 2 to 0 vote Wednesday, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics denied a request by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who petitioned the panel to allow unaffiliated voters to register as Democrats under new election laws that allow for same-day registration.
By Mike DeBonis
Thursday, August 26, 2010

Registered voters not affiliated with a political party will not be allowed to cast ballots in the city's primary elections next month, District elections officials ruled Wednesday.

The decision maintains regular practices but deals a major blow to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's efforts to capture votes in his reelection campaign.

The District has had a "closed primary" system since local elections began in 1974, in which only voters who declare a party affiliation may vote in that party's primaries. Starting 30 days before an election, registered voters may not change their affiliation.

But a package of election reforms passed by the D.C. Council last year for the first time allows voters to register on the same day they cast a ballot.

The Fenty campaign petitioned the Board of Elections and Ethics on Friday, asking it to reconsider rules announced Aug. 12 prohibiting unaffiliated voters from declaring a party at polling places.

Marc Elias, an attorney for the Fenty campaign, argued Wednesday that the new law contained "ambiguous" language that could permit undeclared voters to declare an affiliation at a polling place. He appealed to the board to interpret the law broadly.

"When in doubt, enfranchise the voters," Elias said.

But representatives for Fenty's main challenger, Vincent C. Gray (D), argued that allowing independent voters to choose a party on primary day would represent a sharp departure from prior practice -- a departure, they claimed, that lawmakers did not intend to make.

The board's members and attorney largely accepted that argument. Holding closed primaries "has been the practice for a long time," said Togo D. West Jr., the board's chairman. "The [elections bill] did not change this."

At the meeting, board attorney Kenneth J. McGhie read from a transcript of a D.C. Council committee meeting, where member David A. Catania (I-At Large) introduced a series of amendments to the election reform bill aiming to broaden participation in primary elections. One of them closely mirrored Fenty's request, to allow unaffiliated voters to choose a party at a primary polling place.

Passing the amendment would become a "back door to an open primary," the committee's chairwoman, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said at the Sept. 25 meeting. The committee voted 3 to 1 to reject the proposal.

West said that the D.C. Council's intent was clear. "This order focuses largely on the actions, or in this case, the inactions, of the council," he said.

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