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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