Chris Byrd, a D.C. native, is a social-justice advocate.
The majority of the D.C. Council supports allowing people 16 years and older to vote in District elections. This proposal would certainly encourage more participation in our democracy, but it wouldn’t solve the District’s problem of profound voter alienation.
To solve the problem, we first must understand its roots and severity. The results of the recent controversial Initiative 77 referendum underscore how bad the problem has become.
In the June 19 election, only 18 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, and 55 percent supported the measure to guarantee (eventually) a $15 minimum wage for tipped workers. That meant only 10 percent of the electorate supported the measure and 8 percent opposed it, while 82 percent effectively abstained.
Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans (D) sadly was correct when he said these results don’t reflect the people’s will. But his justification to overturn the election results disconcerts nonetheless. Because voters don’t exercise their franchise, he said, “It’s really up to the council to act in the best interests of the city.”
This pragmatic approach acknowledges but does not confront voter indifference, which stems in part from our lack of congressional representation. Voters’ absurd choices between candidates for a shadow senator and a nonvoting delegate inform their understandable cynicism.
A kind of Catch-22 arises out of this sorry state: People aren’t engaged because they don’t have a voice in Congress, and they don’t have a congressional voice because they aren’t involved. Caught between desire and fatalism, District voters too often succumb to fatalism.
Their sense of futility partially explains why some District voters don’t vote. But closed, winner-take-all primaries also depress District voting. When primary elections are limited to voters registered with specific parties, and 76 percent of voters are registered Democrats, Democratic primaries have become de facto general elections.
Independents, 17 percent of the electorate, are left to rubber stamp Democratic primary results in the general election. District independents are largely disenfranchised.
That the candidates they’re asked to confirm don’t always win a majority in Democratic primaries compounds these voters’ cynicism. For instance, in 2014, Muriel E. Bowser (D) became mayor having won only 43 percent of the vote in the primary. When candidates face little resistance and competition, and cross such a low bar to win elections, of course voters become jaundiced.
Opening primaries to all voters and requiring runoff elections if no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote would create more interesting, competitive elections, which should engage voters more.
Open primaries would compel candidates to reach voters beyond their base, challenging them to distinguish themselves more clearly from their opponents.
And loosening the District’s election rules may embolden more voters to declare themselves independent, which would further elevate the bar for candidates, possibly producing ones more deserving of our votes.
These changes would be good for our democracy but not necessarily for Democrats. But their hegemony has alienated 82 percent of voters, and they should keep in mind the District’s tenuous hold on democracy and the renewed efforts to suppress the vote nationally.
Though not as insidious as requiring citizens to produce identification or purging voter rolls, our current electoral system is, in the broadest sense, akin to voter suppression. Especially here and now, the District’s Democrats shouldn’t support voter suppression. With an overwhelming council majority and a Democratic mayor, Democrats have the power to change the way we conduct our elections.
Authorizing changes that encourage more open and competitive elections, Democrats may not overcome voter apathy entirely. But they could meaningfully signal: Decisions that affect our mutual future will be informed more by the people’s will than 13 individuals taking matters into their own hands.