GUEST COLUMN: DC Moves Primary Election But Fails To End Voter Ban

June 4, 2017

Last week the D.C. Council voted without dissent to again shift the date of the city’s primary elections, permanently establishing the second Tuesday in June for all future balloting.


Local legislators, however, failed to fix the District’s arcane and exclusionary election system that bars all non-party-aligned voters from participating.


Unlike most states, many of which do not require voters to register by party, D.C. continues its outdated system that prohibits independent voters from casting a ballot in the determinative primary elections. Under this scheme, fully one-fourth of voters are irrelevant due to Democrats enjoying an overwhelming registration advantage.


As a result of the city’s “closed primary” restriction, voters not registered with a party are permitted to cast a ballot only in general elections when the winner is almost always a foregone conclusion and voting little matters.


Although residents fully understand that not registering with a political party results in not being allowed to fully participate in selecting city officeholders, a total of one-in-five, or more, in half the city’s political wards select “No Party” when signing up, and nearly an equal number citywide do the same.


Almost 80,000 registered residents in D.C. are excluded from voting.


A near-majority of voters, and a majority of those 35-and-younger, now self-identify as independents nationwide. In D.C., the old-fashioned price for exercising the right to vote in primary elections remains limited to those willing to align themselves with a political party.


If local political parties desire to conduct primaries as a restricted activity of private clubs, it should be required that they finance the nearly half-a-million-dollar cost to taxpayers, prorated according to party registrations.


Receiving a District government invoice of approximately $350,000 for each party-member-only primary election might convince the local Democratic Party, as well as minor parties with correspondingly smaller cost-shares, that it is time to allow independent voters equal access.


Taxpayers should neither be forced to fund elections in which all registered voters are not eligible to participate or directly subsidize restricted party activities. If a political party can’t afford, or chooses not to pay, a fair share of the cost of conducting a “closed primary” to nominate candidates, party members can utilize an alternate method. A party could choose, for example, to conduct a private election, as is done for selecting delegates to national conventions, or hold a private nominating convention open only to its members.


Elected officeholders from D.C.’s dominant Democratic Party, of course, avoid acknowledging or discussing this issue. They like the current system that essentially limits the relevant voting pool for election or re-election to only party members, with the general election a mere perfunctory exercise.


An unfair system that prohibits all voters from exercising their franchise grants established majority-party politicians special pathway privileges and distinct electoral advantages. Local officials prefer preserving a restricted election system that necessitates only winning among party members to prevail.


Incumbent politicians don’t want to compete against all others, and new ideas, in a non-partisan “top-two” primary open to all voters, as in California and other states. They don’t even want to allow voters to choose to participate in an “open primary” party nominating election of their choice, as in neighboring Virginia and other states.


Elected officeholders like the city’s outmoded and antiquated primary election system and the many ways it inhibits the political marketplace and suppresses public policy debate.


Candidates should be required to, preferably, compete in non-partisan elections in which all candidates collectively seek to advance toward a two-candidate general election or, alternately, compete in an “open primary” system in which independents are allowed to vote in a party primary of their choice.


Reforming the District’s elections would remedy both the community perception and the practical reality that local officeholders are required to seek the votes of, and represent, only a portion of permitted-to-participate voters.

D.C. would benefit from conducting modernized elections made fair by allowing access to all voters.


Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at

This is been reprinted with permission from the author.

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