THE WINNER of Tuesday’s Democratic primary for an at-large D.C. Council seat is still to be determined. Absentee and provisional ballots must be counted; even then, a recount is possible. No matter who wins — incumbent Vincent B. Orange or challenger Sekou Biddle — the election points to the need for reform in how the District selects its public officials.
When officials finished counting the ballots cast Tuesday in the Democratic primary, a scant 543 votes separated Mr. Orange and Mr. Biddle. As is generally the case in elections where the results are so close, the front-runner is quick to declare victory and the need to move forward while the lagging candidate invokes democracy and the urgency of counting every vote. What gets lost is how to improve a system in which low voter turnout and the requirement of winning a plurality — not a majority — allow candidates to squeak into elected office with scant public support.
Voter turnout for the Democratic primary was an abysmal 15.5 percent; only 53,391 of the city’s 344,448 registered voters turned out. Republicans were no better: 4,576 of 30,276, or 15.1 percent, voted. Officials say the turnout is in keeping with previous primaries, but nonetheless there’s concern that the shift from traditional September voting — necessitated by federal law requiring more time for the processing of overseas absentee ballots in presidential primaries — had an impact. Picking a date in the week before Easter — when many schools are in recess and families on vacation — aggravated the situation.
Is there a better time to hold the election? Was there more that the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics could have done to educate the electorate? One idea worthy of study is vote-by-mail. Mail voting has been in place statewide in Oregon since 1998 and has proved reliable and successful in driving up voter participation.
Tuesday’s voting also underscored the need to consider some type of runoff voting to prevent the election of officials who have been rejected by a majority of voters. Mr. Orange and Mr. Biddle garnered less than 40 percent of the all-important Democratic primary vote that historically guarantees election in November. In Ward 7, incumbent Yvette M. Alexander (D) won the nomination with 42 percent. (She will face Republican Ron Moten in the fall.)
A second round of voting is one solution, but it’s unlikely to increase turnout. Another possibility is an instant runoff system in which voters indicate first, second and third choices. As the least successful candidates are eliminated, votes get retotaled. The system’s complexity might give some voters pause, but a preference system could prevent weak incumbents from profiting from a crowded field. Unlike in national or state contests, it is relatively easy to get on the local ballot, and contests in which there are six or more candidates are not unusual — particularly when an incumbent seems vulnerable. A preference system also might encourage candidates — particularly those running citywide — to cast a wider net for support. One of the more dispiriting aspects of Tuesday’s at-large contest was the persistence of a racial divide in voting.
D.C. residents rightly complain about the injustice of their being denied congressional representation. That so few voters bothered to make their voices heard at so critical a time in the city’s governance doesn’t help their cause. It should occasion some soul searching.