DC elections: a clear need for ranked choice voting, and expansion of the Council
A few election cycles ago, candidate for Council Matthew Frumin made the point that is was coming onto the 50th anniversary of Home Rule (2013), and that it would be a worthwhile exercise to assess the experience, and make changes as necessary.
Home Rule, or the creation of a DC City Charter, was when Congress passed a law creating an independent local government for DC, which previously had been run as a unit of the Executive Branch with severe oversight by Congress. Because DC was then a majority black city, this was also seen as a civil rights issue.
I thought Frumin had a good idea and of course, nothing's come of it.
Many candidates should mean ranked choice voting. This year's elections, both with the Ward 2 Council seat--where 8 candidates vied for the seat in the Democratic primary, which was won by a young woman with limited connections to the city and a lot of family money for the campaign and the At Large race, where 23 candidates are vying for the two spots ("D.C. at-large council race exposes city's racial divides," Washington Post) screams out for the need for "ranked choice voting."
Sample ballot, DC 2020 Election
I've argued for more than a decade that DC should do this. It's an overwhelming Democratic city--96% of us voted for Hillary Clinton, so when seats come open, it's a scrum, and with so many candidates, people get elected with less than a majority. For example, Brooke Pinto won the Ward 2 primary with less than 29% of the vote. Usually there are more votes cast in total for the other candidates rather than the winner.
In RCV, you vote for X number of candidates, ranking them 1, 2, 3, etc. If there isn't an outright winner, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated with their preferences redistributed. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of preferences. Maine moved to this format because third party candidates ended up leading to Republican wins.
Pierce County, Washington tried this in 2008, but people didn't like it and they reversed it. (Graphic used with the permission of Fred Matamoros, when he was at the Tacoma News Tribune.)
District vs. at large voting. Generally, courts have held that at large voting allows the majority to extinguish minority representation (AT-LARGE VOTING FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS, NAACP Legal Defense Fund).
District based voting with fairly designed districts should provide for the representation of minorities provided they are geographically concentrated. One recent example is Anaheim, California, where the shift to geographical districts led to Latinos being elected to the Council where they had been represented previously. (Although ranked choice voting could have made a difference as well.)
Like a number of cities, DC has a mix of wards and at large representatives. There are 8 wards, each with one Councilmember, and 4 at large positions. Four wards and two at large positions are up in each election cycle.
The Council is roughly 50% black and 50% white, and neither Asians nor Latinos have been elected to Council
At-large Council. The at large positions have an interesting requirement. Recognizing the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, one seat in each cycle is reserved for the non-majority "party." (Philadelphia has a similar provision.) What that meant for many years is that there were "Statehood Party" and/or Republican representatives on Council, holding one of those seats.
In the 1988 election, Democrat William Lightfoot realized there was a work around to run for that seat. He gave up his Democratic Party affiliation and ran as an independent, getting elected. Since then, more Democrats have done this. Hilda Mason, the Statehood Party stalwart was defeated by an "independent" in 1998.
Republican Councilmember Carol Schwartz likely would have stayed on Council as long as she wanted, but in the 2008 election cycle, conservative Republicans got "cute" and ran a candidate against her in the primary. She lost, but the party Republicans didn't realize that Democrats were voting for Schwartz because of her qualities, not out of a sense of a need for "political competition" and their candidate was crushed in the general election. Since then, an "independent" (Democrat) has picked up that seat.
This year's scrum is the result of "independent" David Grosso, choosing to step down.
More Councilmembers for more representation? In the past, I've argued for many changes to DC 's governance set up, including: (1) adding a Councilmember to each ward; (2) considering adding up to three wards; and (3) adding more at large representatives to complement a larger proportion of ward-based representatives.
One advantage of making the Council bigger is that it would be harder to pass legislation. Now you only need 7 votes. This is the source of the criticism that the Council is more progressive policy oriented and less concerned about "business."
While the "too progressive/not business friendly" sentiment is expressed in the Post article about the At Large election what comes across more is that as the city's demographics change, white progressives are trumping black moderates, although this isn't restricted to whites, as in the 2020 Ward 4 primary, progressive black candidate Janeese Lewis George defeated the pro-business incumbent Brandon Todd, in large part with the votes of white progressives.
Making the Council larger could help address both concerns.
Adding a Councilmember to each ward. I've favored this for a long time as a way to create intra-ward political competition by eliminating political monopoly.
Since the racial composition of ward representation is 50/50, adding a representative to each ward would add 4 black Councilmembers and either 4 white Councilmemers or 3 white and 1 Latino (Ward 1, although Latinos are being displaced from the ward as the housing stock appreciates in value).
Rather than having four wards up for election in each election, one Council seat would be up for all eight wards.
But while it is likely to add more white and black members, it's not likely to result in the addition of Latino Councilmembers strictly on the basis of geography.
Creating more wards. Arguably you could add wards too, although with two representatives per ward, there probably wouldn't be a need to have more wards, but it would increase representation theoretically, by reducing the number of people represented by each councilmember, and providing the capacity for more access.
The current population of the city is 720,000, so each ward comprises about 90,000 residents. Adding 3 wards would have each ward be comprised of about 66,000 residents.
But because the city's population is shifting towards majority white and this population is mostly west of the Anacostia River, likely this would tip the Council demographic to majority white.
So this would be problematic. Easier and fairer to not create more wards, but add one Councilmember to each ward.
Adding at large seats. Figuring an addition of 8 ward-based council members, I'd add two at large members, one for each cycle.
That would make for a 22 member City Council, chaired by the 23rd member, the Council Chair.
Second Party in DC. Technically, there isn't much of a "second party" in that the Republicans are pretty weak, given the progressive bent of the electorate, although Republicans have been on Council in the recent past--David Catania (although he first won in a special election in 1997, and probably many people voted for him at first, not realizing he ran as a Republican), Carol Schwartz, and at the outset of Home Rule, Black Republican Jerry Moore.
With two representatives per district, there would be an increased likelihood that a moderate Republican could win a seat in either Ward 2 or Ward 3. But the person would have to be liberal on social issues and reasonable on budget issues.
But as long as the fiction of independent Democrats persists, the likelihood of a Republican winning an at large seat is remote.
Third Parties. Statehood-Green. At the outset of Home Rule, an independent Statehood Party had Julius Hobson on Council. He died in office, and Hilda Mason replaced him. She lost a bid for reelection in 1998 and since then the party, which subsequently merged with the Green Party in DC, has not been successful at getting anyone elected to either ward or at large seats. I do think it would be possible, but they don't have a particular strong brand and electioneering capacity.
But again, with two representatives in each ward, it'd be possible for them to mount more successful challenges and win seats. With a beachhead of a ward seat, it'd be possible for them to win seats at large, especially with the addition of
Working Families. Last year, in Philadelphia, the Working Families Party was successful in running for an at large seat, beating out a seat that had long been held by Republicans ("‘Regular people’ over Wall Street: How the Working Families Party could shake up Philly City Hall," Billy Penn). With a larger DC City Council, they could make a play for seats here. The party is active in the city, but hasn't run candidates.
Conclusion. Aim for the creation of a more diverse Council, including the possibility of true third party participation. (Although the current "power elite" isn't likely to favor either.)
1. Adopt ranked choice voting to allow for greater intra-party competition and to increase the possibility of second and third party representation.
2. Increase the size of the City Council by adding one representative to each of the city's 8 wards.
3. Increase the size of the City Council by adding two at large representatives, adding one new representative to each election cycle.
With a 23 member Council it will take 12 votes, not 7 to pass legislation, making it a bit more difficult to pass legislation.
With more ward members it should create the possibility for second and third party representation, thereby creating a foundation to build upon for mounting successful campaigns for at large seats.
Ranked choice voting will support intra-ward political competition as well as ensure that third party candidacies don't create spoilers.