Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Rethinking (some of) the DC local elections process: starting with eliminating the primary altogether

I have a bunch of past posts about DC's political and governance structures and ideas and frameworks for "reform," including "DC special election redux: Part 2."

A few weeks back the Post editorialized again ("Three ways DC can improve the electoral process for voters") in favor of ranked choice voting, where within the balloting process voters rank candidates rather than only voting for one candidate.

Separately, the City Council is considering legislation to separate the local elections process from the national elections, so that the city could go back to having a September primary.

In response to federal election requirements, a few years ago the city shifted to an April primary, which is too early and favors incumbents (see "DC primary elections").  This has been the subject of a great deal of criticism, mostly which has been ignored, until very recently.

Now I have a new/re-codified set of proposals, starting with a stunner:

1.  Why even have a primary election for local offices?   Just have the vote simultaneous with the general election for federal offices. (Since DC is so small.)

Since the Democratic Party dominates local elections, getting the nomination in the primary is the major element to winning office ("tantamount to victory") in local elections.  But many people complain that shuts out many voters out of the process and is highly oligarchical and static.  But if DC elections are the equivalent of Snow White and the seven dwarfs anyway, because of the overwhelming dominance of the Democratic Party, is a primary even necessary?

2.  Just let all candidates run on one ballot (without a primary), with multiple candidates from each party if candidates are so inclined and able to meet the petition requirements to get on the ballot.

Ranked choice voting graphic, Pierce County WashingtonVery briefly, Pierce County, Washington had ranked choice voting for local elections.  Left is a graphic outlining the process which appeared in the Tacoma News-Tribune in November, 2008.  Used with permission.

3.  And rather than having a runoff if no one candidate garners more than 50% of the vote, use ranked choice voting to determine the final results.

Previously I argued in favor of runoff elections ("DC needs to add a runoff element to the elections process"), but since runoffs are somewhat anti-populist, it makes more sense to just have one election, DC being so small.

4.  While authorizing "electoral fusion" or candidates running with multiple party affiliations ("Legalizing electoral fusion as another election improvement").

This is how it is done in New York State, where parties like the Conservatives, Liberals, and Working Families possess the ability to shape the election agenda, because candidates come looking to those parties for a secondary endorsement, which can make the difference between electoral success and failure.

5.  While at the same time, shift special elections to a mail ballot, to reduce costs, although with one early voting location for the entire ward (like how the city runs early voting processes now) where people can still vote in person.

Since it costs at least $300,000 to run a special election, this would save a bit of money.



At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

they could start by making it easier for non- lawyers to run for office

At 12:04 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

You still need some sort of primary process to simply shrink the size of the field.

Special elections are good examples: right now, both the Ward 4 and 8 special elections have at least 6-7 candidates for each seat.

This year's general election for two at large seats had 15 candidates.

The current primary system isn't a good method to winnow that field down, but I don't think democracy is served in a winner-take-all election to have so many candidates - where the 'winner' is claiming victory with such a small percentage of the votes cast.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

what I propose might not be better, but the primary process now isn't any better, when "the Democrat" is guaranteed to win the primary. So what happens is that the preferred candidate/incumbent buzzsaws through the primary and then is elected in the general election.

Yes, there are exceptions over the years, with Jim Graham the most recent incumbent who failed to win his contested primary (he did the same thing to his predecessor, as did Vincent Orange to Harry Thomas Sr.).

But they are so few as to be aberrant.

I'd rather the cacophony of an election with lots of candidates, with ranked choice voting.

At 6:25 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

Sure, but my point is to not conflate a primary election with DC's current closed, partisan primaries.

Open primaries, non partisan, top two primaries, etc. there are lots of potential reforms that help cull the field. Given that DC elections aren't particularly ideological or partisan, I don't think that having a massive field of candidates is helpful when it's a winner take all election.

Such is the curse of single member districts. If you had a large field voting for party platforms for a proportional representation system, that would be different.

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think you missed the point I made about linking this with ranked voting.

In the past I had suggested having open primaries, and moving the top two candidates to the general election, like in Seattle.

But now I think this other method could work equally well.

The question is would "democracy" be served better the way we are doing it now, or with the change.

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

<(Since DC is so small.)>
<...DC being so small.>

I'm happy to see you acknowledging this fact. As you know, my contention for at least a decade is that we have many fewer residents than 600,000 and this is invariably borne out in the voter numbers--low turnout, ridiculously low percentages of supposed voters.
Until the city decides to tackle the dysfunctional Board of Elections voter rolls and come clean about the real (versus fantasy) population of DC, nothing will change.

At 5:20 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...


I didn't miss your points about ranked voting, but I am somewhat dismissive of their effectiveness (they are subject to some strategic voting concerns) or their likelihood. Open primaries, non partisan primaries, or top-two primaries are more common and also more likely reforms, I would argue.

I'm also sympathetic to the concern that more complex voting methods might be a real challenge for the city to administer. Restructuring the rules on who votes and who wins in a primary is a lot easier, since the actual mechanics of voting remain the same.

You asked the rhetorical question: why even have a primary? And I'm answering: to cull the field down to a manageable size.


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