When it comes to ranked-choice voting (RCV) and open primaries, those on opposing sides of these polarizing issues base their reasoning on what they call a high regard for democratic values.
In the midst of D.C. Board of Elections (DCBOE) deliberations about an RCV/open primaries ballot initiative, there have been questions about how the District’s Home Rule Charter interprets partisan elections and whether RCV/open primaries would incur an additional cost to District taxpayers.
Perhaps that’s why DCBOE has carved out a couple of days, more time than has been needed for previous cases to come before the body over the last 18 months, to determine the suitability of the ballot initiative.”We’re looking at statutes and case law [to] make sure we make the right decision,” said Gary Thompson, DCBOE board chairman.
“There are seven issues we have to look at for [each of] the two aspects of the ballot initiative,” Thompson continued. “This will entail studying case law and Supreme Court cases.”
DCBOE Hears from Ranked-Choice Voting/Open Primaries Supporters
On Tuesday, proponents and opponents of the ballot initiative known as the Make All Votes Count Act of 2024 converged on the DCBOE office in Southeast to weigh in on the question of its suitability.
As explained by Thompson on Tuesday, a ballot initiative is deemed suitable when it satisfies the tenets of the Home Rule Act and the U.S. Constitution while not appropriating government funds. If approved by DCBOE, signatures equating to 5% of the local electorate would need to be collected before the Make All Votes Count Act of 2024 officially makes it on the 2024 ballot.
If included on the 2024 ballot and approved by voters, the Make All Votes Count Act of 2024 would implement ranked-choice voting and allow non-party affiliated voters to participate in primary elections for the party of their choice.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates by level of preference. After each voter’s first choice is counted, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated. From that point, each ballot will count for whichever candidate they have ranked the highest until one candidate wins more than 50% of the total votes.
An open primary system would affect 86,000 voters who are currently unable to participate in party primaries for public office because of their independent status.
On June 16, the Make All Votes Count Act DC coalition submitted the Make All Votes Count Act of 2024 to the D.C. Board of Elections. Its package included a summary not exceeding 100 words, a copy with a statement of organization, and a verified statement of contributions with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.
The discussion on Tuesday featured more than two dozen voices, most of whom supported the Make All Votes Count Act of 2024, and some of whom weighed in without initially reserving a slot.
A significant issue brought up throughout the discussions concerned whether the ballot initiative would require an appropriation of funds. In statements submitted to DCBOE, the D.C. Council’s Office of General Counsel and the D.C. Office of the Attorney General (OAG) provided differing perspectives on that point, with OAGt saying that BOE could add a clause preventing the appropriation of funds.
A point brought up in an exchange between Thompson and Joseph Sandler, the attorney representing the Make All Votes Count Act DC campaign, concerned whether the ballot initiative would violate a portion of the Home Rule Act that mandates “partisan elections” for mayor and down-ballot candidates.
For some people like Lisa D.T. Rice, however, the exclusion of independent voters and what she described as the continuous marginalization of D.C. residents posed a greater danger to democracy and human rights.
Minutes before Sandler testified before BOE, Rice, a Ward 7 resident and non-party affiliated voter who submitted the ballot measure, provided her comments, noting that an increasing number of young people who are registering as non-party affiliated voters are currently disenfranchised due to their inability to participate in primary elections which, oftentimes in the majority Democratic nation’s capital, automatically determine the winning candidate.
Earlier this week, Rice told the Informer that ranked-choice voting holds elected officials better accountable to the masses of local voters. As it relates to open primaries, Rice noted that independent voters should be allowed to weigh in on tax-payer-funded electoral exercises that determine the composition of local government.
“I shouldn’t have to subscribe to a party,” Rice said. “If each of the parties were funding their own primary, they could cut me out, but we should be able to vote in them. We want to hold politicians accountable.”
Others who testified in favor of the ballot measure on Tuesday included other Make All Votes Count DC coalition members along with ANC Commissioners Rev. Wendy Hamilton (8D06) and Peter Wood (1C03), the latter of whom cited Federalist Paper No. 39 to argue that power comes from the people. David Krucoff, a third-generation Washingtonian, said that current elected representation doesn’t represent the District’s political diversity.
Barbara Zia, president of the League of Women Voters DC, and Victoria Pelletier of RepresentWomen later touted the need for expanding opportunities for women and other historically marginalized populations to participate in elections.
In his testimony, Kymone Freeman of We Act Radio derided Democrats in D.C. who he thought infantilized District voters by assuming that they would be confused by a ranked-choice voting system. He also alluded to the outcome of the last mayoral race during which D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), an incumbent with growing opposition, garnered victory with less than half of the votes.
“Ranked-choice voting opens the door for people who want to run for mayor,” Freeman said. “It nullifies the notion of voting for the ‘lesser of two evils.’ It makes sure the winner represents voters. It allows young people to have a say in the most important election. It won’t cost DCBOE any more than what it costs to get elections out. Let’s build better community power.”
Local Democrats and Others Weigh In
In May, the D.C. Democratic Party released a statement rejecting ranked-choice voting. Concerns included low-voter turnout in some local jurisdictions that party leadership said ranked-choice voting could further exacerbate. They also said that ranked-choice voting and open primaries could undermine the Democrats’ electoral power in the District.
Party leaders said they reached their conclusion after an eight-month deliberation process with ward leadership, committee members and affiliate groups. Several months prior to the start of those discussions, D.C. Councilmember Christina Henderson (I-At large) unsuccessfully attempted to push her legislation, the Voter Ownership, Integrity, Choice, and Equity Act, also known as the VOICE Act, through the D.C. Council Committee of the Judiciary and Public Safety.
In her testimony of opposition on Wednesday, Ward 4 D.C. Democratic Committeewoman Renee Bowser said the statement submitted by the Make All Votes Count DC campaign inaccurately depicts the outcome of ranked-choice voting by saying that the winner in an election would garner the majority of votes.
Others who testified in opposition to the Make All Votes Count Act of 2024 were:D.C. Democratic Party Chairman Charles Wilson, Robert “Bob” King of the Ward 5 Senior COVID-19 Commission, Deirdre Brown, Branduan L. Dean of Campaign X Policy, Dorothy Brizill of DCWatch, and Anita Shelton.
In her testimony, Brazil cited comments made by DCBOE member Monica Holman Evans’ in a previous case that hinted at “substantial costs” needed to facilitate ranked-choice voting. Meanwhile, Dean said that RCV doesn’t suit a city vying for statehood.
In his testimony, D.C. Democratic Party chair Charles Wilson cited the Home Rule Act in his assertion that the District needs to maintain the integrity of the current system so that candidates in the general election are only chosen by members of that party. He also challenged the presumption that the ballot measure wouldn’t incur costs, saying that money would be needed for changing ballots and launching a voter education campaign, among other actions needed to facilitate a transition.
When asked about situations where District residents register as Democrats out of a need to participate in primaries, WIlson said that residents who do that haven’t been forced to make those decisions, whereas open primaries would subject the Democratic Party to the intrusion of non-party affiliated voters in their political process.
“The Home Rule Charter specifically states that the D.C. Council and its members should be elected by qualified registered voters. The same is true for D.C. mayor,” Wilson said. “The intention behind the charter was for partisan parties to elect its candidates. Open primaries would be in violation of the charter [and] undermine the intention of the charter [and] those seeking nomination.”
On Monday, Wendell Felder, chair of the Ward 7 Democrats, remained steadfast to the prevailing viewpoint among party leadership, telling the informer that proponents of ranked-choice voting and open primaries would have to take their endeavor to the grassroots with an education campaign that clears up confusion about the proposals.
He too said that ranked-choice voting could further deter voters in jurisdictions with low voter turnout from the ballot box.
“If more education was done to allow residents a chance to absorb [information about ranked-choice voting and open primaries] then it would change my mind,” Felder said. “That looks like going door to door, meeting residents where they are, canvassing places and sending mailers [that show] what ranked-choice voting is and how it could impact people. We have to let people know the short and long-term implications of this [ballot measure].”
Follow Sam P.K. Collins on Twitter: @SamPKCollins