The District’s primary election date will remain in flux for the next four years, first moving to June, then to September as city lawmakers continue searching for a way to prevent a repeat of this year’s record-low voter turnout in April.
The D.C. Council on Tuesday approved a plan to hold a combined local and federal primary in June 2016. Two years later, in 2018, the city’s next mayoral primary would flip to September under the bill, which now heads to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) for his signature.
D.C. was forced to move up its traditional mid-September primary to comply with a federal law designed to give overseas members of the military 45 days after a primary to receive and return absentee ballots for a November general election.
To meet that requirement, the council decided last year to overhaul its election calendar, moving its primary up five months, to April. Some lawmakers voted for that change believing it would bring an added benefit of making the city’s choice in presidential years more consequential.
But the city’s first experience with the new date did not go well. On April 1, when council member Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4) upset the incumbent, Gray, turnout was the lowest the city had seen in at least three decades.
That was partially viewed as a reflection of broad public apathy toward D.C. politics amid continued scandal.
But the early-in-the-year timing was at least partly to blame, having caught many residents by surprise.
Mayoral candidates debated in January and February, often in front of sparse crowds and on snowy nights that more closely resembled caucus season in Iowa than the District’s traditional summertime political season of festivals and parades.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) pushed last month to move the primary as close as possible to its original date in September. He argued that a primary on the first Tuesday in September, with accelerated ballot counting, would allow 45 days until the general election, complying with the federal law.
McDuffie’s plan cleared a first vote of the council this month, but members Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) continued to raise objections. Orange said the date would put the new election up against Labor Day, when some residents may be traveling. Orange also warned that the new date could fall on or adjacent to the next Democratic National Convention, which D.C. candidates and delegates may want to attend.
Evans objected to the fact that the September date would again force the city to split its local and federal primaries, holding the latter in June at an extra cost of $2 million or more. As a result, McDuffie agreed to amend the bill.
And that may not be end of the schedule changes. After the vote, Evans suggested in a tweet that he may continue pushing for all future primaries to come in June: “More work to do, but it’s a start.”