D.C.'s unaffiliated voters, left out in the cold

Thursday, August 26, 2010

ON THE ISSUE of widening participation in the District's primaries, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics' ruling Wednesday was correct on the law, but Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was -- and remains -- right on the merits. The D.C. Council should revisit the issue for future elections.

A petition by Mr. Fenty would have permitted more unaffiliated voters to participate in the city's contested primaries Sept. 14. His campaign saw ambiguity in the recently enacted law that provides for same-day voting and registration. If unregistered voters could claim the right to cast a ballot on primary day, why not those voters who were registered but not, either by choice or omission, affiliated with a party? Officials with the mayor claimed that the board's general counsel had initially agreed with their interpretation.

The board decided 2 to 0 that "no party" registrants cannot declare a political party at the last minute. As Board Chairman Togo D. West Jr. pointed out, it was clear from the legislative history that, in enacting same-day registration, the council rejected amendments that would have allowed participation by independent voters in primaries. Board members properly chose not to substitute their judgment for that of lawmakers or to change longstanding rules so close to the election. It was troubling, though no fault of Mr. West or of his fellow board member, that only Democrats were on hand to make this important decision; disagreement between the mayor and council has left the board without a critical minority voice.

More perplexing is why D.C. Council members such as Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who have championed reforms to increase voting participation, would reject such sensible proposals as those of council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) to allow independents to vote in the primary election of a political party if the party permitted or to change party affiliation on the day of an election. Ms. Cheh told us that she's not necessarily opposed but that those issues hadn't been fully studied when the law was changed.

Mr. Fenty's campaign officials said they were glad to get a fair hearing from the board and that they plan no appeal. We hope that whoever is elected mayor -- Mr. Fenty or D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) -- puts the issue of these 72,400 unaffiliated voters among his first orders of business. Enfranchising as many people as possible is the right goal.

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