It’s Primary Day in D.C., but My Vote Won’t Count

Seventeen percent of District voters don’t identify with a party. Thanks to closed primaries, they won’t have much of a say in selecting the city’s new mayor.

Citizens vote on Election Day at Fire Station #71 in Alhambra, Los Angeles County, on November 6, 2012 in California.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
April 1, 2014, 8:59 a.m.

As a D.C. res­id­ent for the past sev­en years, I’ve been denied rep­res­ent­a­tion in Con­gress. Today, I was denied the right to vote — or at least to have it coun­ted.

After ar­riv­ing at my polling place in sunny East­ern Mar­ket on Tues­day morn­ing, I in­tro­duced my­self as a non­par­tis­an voter, one of the in­de­pend­ents whom na­tion­al polit­ic­al parties are so eager to track down dur­ing con­gres­sion­al elec­tion years. I was giv­en a spe­cial bal­lot and told to choose a party primary to vote in. A call to the Board of Elec­tions after I cast my bal­lot, however, con­firmed my sus­pi­cions: My bal­lot will not be coun­ted.

Wash­ing­ton is hold­ing its may­or­al primary elec­tion, in which scan­dal-fraught Vin­cent Gray is seek­ing the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion for a second term against sev­en oth­er can­did­ates. The Dis­trict is over­whelm­ingly Demo­crat­ic, with nearly 76 per­cent of Dis­trict voters re­gistered with the Demo­crat­ic Party.

Giv­en that elect­or­al makeup, the win­ner of the Demo­crat­ic primary is typ­ic­ally guar­an­teed to be­come may­or, mak­ing the gen­er­al elec­tion in Novem­ber, which is open to mem­bers of all parties (and even no party), a moot point. This year, giv­en the in­cum­bent’s his­tory, if Gray re­ceives the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, polling shows that in­de­pend­ent Coun­cil­man Dav­id Catania could give him a run for his money in Novem­ber.

After Demo­crats, the next highest num­ber of re­gistered voters are in­de­pend­ents. Fully 17 per­cent of Wash­ing­ton’s voters are not re­gistered with any party. In oth­er words, thanks to the Dis­trict’s closed primary sys­tem, more than a sixth of the city’s voters will not have a real choice for may­or.

Wash­ing­ton has had a closed primary since it began hold­ing loc­al elec­tions in 1974, mean­ing that only voters re­gistered with a par­tic­u­lar party can vote in that party’s primary. In D.C., al­though you can re­gister to vote at a polling sta­tion on Elec­tion Day, voters can­not change their party af­fil­i­ation with­in 30 days be­fore the elec­tion — around the time the av­er­age voter ac­tu­ally real­izes that an elec­tion is ap­proach­ing. The former op­tion, it should be noted, of­fers a sol­id work-around for col­lege stu­dents and oth­ers re­gistered as in­de­pend­ents in oth­er states.

Former May­or Ad­ri­an Fenty fought in 2010 to change the rules to al­low un­af­fili­ated voters to switch their party re­gis­tra­tion on Elec­tion Day, but lost. That pro­pos­al was op­posed by his then-op­pon­ent Vin­cent Gray, and we all know how that turned out. City Coun­cil mem­ber Dav­id Grosso pro­posed a sim­il­ar meas­ure this month — not­ably with the sup­port­ive of may­or­al can­did­ates Tommy Wells, a Demo­crat, and Catania, a Re­pub­lic­an-turned-in­de­pend­ent. But that bill didn’t go any­where either.

Closed primary elec­tions are hardly unique to the Dis­trict of Columbia. Twenty-three states in ad­di­tion to the Dis­trict of Columbia have closed primar­ies (al­though in Alaska, Idaho, Kan­sas, and South Dakota, only the Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies are closed).

From the party’s per­spect­ive, this sys­tem makes per­fect sense. The parties want their most faith­ful voters de­cid­ing which can­did­ate will face the op­pos­ing party in the gen­er­al elec­tion. What’s more, the Re­pub­lic­an Party, for ex­ample, wor­ries that Demo­crat­ic voters will cast bal­lots in their primary elec­tion in fa­vor of the can­did­ate who doesn’t stand a chance against the lead­ing Demo­crat. And vice versa.

This happened mem­or­ably in Michigan in 2012, when about 10 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an primary voters were ac­tu­ally re­gistered as Demo­crats. Former Sen. Rick San­tor­um even paid for robo-calls in the state that urged Demo­crats to vote for him in the Re­pub­lic­an primary in or­der to take a stand against Mitt Rom­ney, who was well on his way to nab­bing the party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion.

Clearly, that’s less of an is­sue in the Dis­trict of Columbia where the vast ma­jor­ity of re­gistered voters are Demo­crats. Wash­ing­ton’s few re­gistered Re­pub­lic­ans, eas­ily re­cog­nized by their Stand With Rand stick­ers and their Ted Cruz tat­toos (here’s look­ing at you, Scott Green­berg), could hardly sway an elec­tion. About 6 per­cent of re­gistered voters in the city (roughly 27,000 people) identi­fy them­selves as Re­pub­lic­ans.

Giv­en that this is Wash­ing­ton (or should we say, “This Town”), hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of those in­de­pend­ent voters are likely journ­al­ists, like my­self, who of­ten re­gister sans party in or­der to avoid con­cerns about par­tis­an­ship in their work. Some, par­tic­u­larly of the old school, don’t vote at all.

In truth, my in­de­pend­ent status has noth­ing to do with my ca­reer. As a seni­or in high school fas­cin­ated by elect­or­al polit­ics, I chose to re­gister un­af­fili­ated (through MTV’s Rock the Vote web­site, nat­ur­ally) as a small protest of my home state of Wash­ing­ton’s closed primary sys­tem. The state has since done away with closed primar­ies in fa­vor of a top-two sys­tem. As I like to tell my friends and cowork­ers, I showed them.

But many in­de­pend­ents are just av­er­age voters, frus­trated with the party sys­tem. There are even some true in­de­pend­ents, who find them­selves some­where in the gray area between the Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic parties. Should they not be able to vote for a Re­pub­lic­an when they feel the party is best aligned with their feel­ings or a Demo­crat when a can­did­ate truly speaks to them?

When I ex­plained to my room­mate, who moved from Lon­don to Wash­ing­ton last year, why I wouldn’t be able to vote in the elec­tion we’ve been dis­cuss­ing all week, she called it “un­demo­crat­ic.” Yes, a Brit­ish per­son called an Amer­ic­an vot­ing sys­tem un­demo­crat­ic. And she has a point. Walk­ing down to the Tid­al Basin this af­ter­noon, I wouldn’t be sur­prised to see that the statue of Thomas Jef­fer­son had fallen over on its back.

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