Democrats heading to the polls Tuesday for the District’s presidential primary will participate in an odd ritual: They’ll vote, but the results won’t matter.
The party’s intensely fought battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is over — decided last week, when Clinton racked up enough victories across the country to secure her party’s nomination.
The city’s inconsequential status is largely a function of its dead-last place on the primary calendar, something Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) says she wants to change for future presidential contests.
But that feeling of futility and sense of invisibility go beyond presidential primaries: They underscore the civic experience in the District, residents say.
Despite the fact that more people live in the District than in Vermont or Wyoming, the city has no voting representation on Capitol Hill. Residents elect “shadow” senators and a “shadow” representative, who have no seats in either chamber, and a delegate who does get a seat but not a vote. D.C. voters approve ballot measures concerning local matters, only to see Congress occasionally nullify their vote.
“D.C. is the last colony, as I like to say. We’re always forgotten. We’ve had taxation without representation for so long — this election is just another example,” agreed Denise Woodson, a 45-year-old social worker who added that she had to dig deep to summon the will to participate in early voting last week after it was clear that Clinton had already won.
For all the enthusiasm of the “I Voted!” stickers residents sport after leaving the polls, the exercise can feel empty, some say.
“Here it is again — D.C.: The last and the least,” said Eugene Puryear, a member of the Statehood Green Party. “Why would you even vote at this point? . . . All the motivation has been stripped away to stand up and feel like your vote counts.”
Voters will be able to decide a handful of D.C. Council races on Tuesday, and those results do count. But during one of the most heated presidential contests in years, it feels like small consolation.
“D.C. deserves better,” said Martin Ayaba, a native of Cameroon who just finished a master’s degree program and voted early last week — for Clinton.
For months, residents of the nation’s capital waited patiently as the presidential primary contests rolled along, drawing national attention to the concerns of faraway voters.
Iowans, they learned in January, were preoccupied with terrorism and the economy; Wisconsinites with education and health-care costs. In April, the nation dissected which candidate had the right “New York values.”
With each passing state, every uptick in the delegate count, the despairing reality for D.C. Democrats again sets in.
On Tuesday — for the ninth time in 11 presidential contests — the party’s voters will cast ballots after the presumptive Democratic nominee has been determined.
That means almost no say for the Americans who will deal most directly with the next president, from motorcades that snarl traffic to administration policies that alter the character of the city.
“It really should be the other way around,” said Jamison Gillespie, 28, a defense contractor who lives on Capitol Hill and attended a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) Thursday night outside RFK Stadium. “Voting in D.C. never means anything. . . . We should be the first, maybe even before Iowa, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
D.C. Republicans held their primary in March, handing a victory to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, although it didn’t help much — he dropped out of the GOP race days later.
But in a city where 75 percent of registered voters are Democrats, most residents have been passively watching presidential politics.
Indeed, it’s Democratic dominance of D.C. during the past 50 years that is partly to blame. Because the city is overwhelmingly blue, the Democratic primary has become the de facto election. To lengthen the campaign season for local contests, the D.C. Council has tried to stretch out the party’s primary season, often selecting one of the last slots available on national party calendars in presidential years.
And that has kept D.C. largely off the radar during primary contests since 1961, when Congress granted residents of the capital the right to vote for president. The city’s residents were the last in the country to win that right.
In 2008, to meet new federal requirements so military voters could be accommodated, the District shifted its primary to February, joining Maryland and Virginia in what was known as the “Potomac Primary.” Voters in the District and its neighboring states backed Barack Obama, adding a wave of Mid-Atlantic momentum to the campaign of the then-Illinois senator.
Running separate presidential and local primaries, however, costs the District about $1 million extra. To save money, the D.C. Council in 2012 combined the two and moved the date to later in the spring.
Bowser wants the D.C. Council to return to separate primaries, even if it costs more. “Many, many states have done it” to boost the clout of their voters, she said.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) seems amenable. “Being dead last is just a terrible idea,” he said.
If the District could play a greater role in presidential primaries, it could draw more national attention to its push for statehood, Bowser said. The mayor will help convene a constitutional convention this week and put a measure before voters in November to petition the next Congress and president to make the District the 51st state.
Since the civil rights era of the 1960s, every Democratic nominee for president has pledged to support some kind of voting representation for the District in Congress, but not one has pushed to make it a reality once elected.
“They are all here now, campaigning, paying lip service to D.C.’s problems, like lack of statehood, but I don’t think they know what it means,” said Woodson, the social worker who cast her ballot during early voting.
When Obama ran for office in 2007, he said it was unjust that D.C. residents lacked a voice in the federal government. “That’s wrong,” he said. “Residents shouldn’t be treated like tenants.” But a deal in Congress that would have given the city one voting member in the House of Representatives fell apart in his first year in office, and he hasn’t substantively addressed the issue again.
The fact that the heavily African American city did not make any progress under Obama, the nation’s first black president, has especially disappointed some local activists.
Now, city activists and politicians have united around full statehood — with voting representatives in Congress — as the only answer.
At a campaign stop Friday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city’s nonvoting representative to Congress, stood beside Clinton at a bakery in the city’s Shaw neighborhood. Norton pointed toward the ceiling, where the owner had installed a sign advocating for D.C. statehood.
“I’m in favor of it,” Clinton said when asked by a reporter, echoing an opinion piece she penned on the topic last month.
Sanders also gave a plug for D.C. statehood during his rally, which attracted more than 2,000 people to RFK Stadium. He noted that the city’s election on Tuesday will take place in a “non-state.”
“I am aware of this problem here in Washington, D.C.,” Sanders said. “And I hope that the next time I’m back, we’re going to be talking about the ‘State of Washington, D.C.’ ”