| Christina Henderson | The DC Line |
Today in the District, our elections are more competitive than they have ever been. At the time of writing this, Democratic primary voters in Ward 3 have six active candidates to choose from for their council representative (though nine are on the ballot); seven candidates will be on the ballot in Ward 5; four candidates are competing for the Democratic nomination in the at-large council race; and who knows how many will file to run as independents in the general election this fall for the additional at-large seat.
We should be proud of this. Some of this increased interest in running for office can be attributed to the success of the DC Fair Elections Program, which removes barriers for candidates to financially compete during a campaign. Overall, competitive elections are good for democracy. They engage voters and fuel lasting interest in issues impacting our communities.
It is time for DC’s election system to adapt to this increased competitiveness, reflect changes in how candidates and voters engage with our elections, and support further improvements to that engagement
Personally, I will never be in the business of telling people not to run for political office. If you believe you have good ideas, are willing to serve, and have the best interest of DC residents at the core of your motivation, by all means run and let the voters decide. However, given the way we currently hold our elections, I grow frustrated at the prospect of the shrinking threshold for victory because of the number of competitive candidates in so many races. Instead of convincing a majority of the electorate to support your candidacy, a plurality will often suffice – and in a crowded-enough race, a mere 17% may be all it takes to win. It is time for DC’s election system to adapt to this increased competitiveness, reflect changes in how candidates and voters engage with our elections, and support further improvements to that engagement.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a method I believe the District should consider. Under RCV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If during the tabulations a candidate doesn’t receive over 50% of the vote, instant runoffs occur with the votes of eliminated candidates being redistributed. To succeed under this process, candidates must seek a broad swath of support from voters. There’s another benefit as well: Evidence has shown that when localities adopt RCV, more women and people of color run. The city of Eastpointe, Michigan, adopted RCV in 2019 to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging that the city’s elections suppressed Black voting power. Since introducing RCV, the city has seen a higher number of Black candidates run and win. Studies of other localities across the country have found similar results. In addition, with the adoption of a RCV system last fall, we saw New York City elect its first-ever female-majority City Council and second-ever Black mayor.
The best thing about RCV, though, is that voters get to vote their conscience, with no need to worry about engaging in the political game of trying to decide which candidate is perceived as the most viable. If you have voted in more than two elections in your life, chances are you’ve said at one point, “I really like Candidate X, but I don’t want to waste my vote.” Look at what is happening in Ward 3’s DC Council Democratic primary race right now, where a week before Election Day candidates are dropping out to coalesce around one of their competitors in an attempt to prevent a moderately conservative candidate from squeaking out a win. They have campaigned hard and should not have to make this choice. Additionally, over 35,000 ballots have already been cast citywide in early voting either by mail or in person, and it may be frustrating for those in Ward 3 who cannot change their vote. With RCV, this would not be a problem, as their subsequent ranked choices would still be tabulated.
Last year, I introduced the Voter Ownership, Integrity, Choice, and Equity (VOICE) Amendment Act of 2021 to bring RCV to our local elections. This legislation would mandate a robust voter education campaign to be carried out by the Board of Elections. The Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held a hearing on the bill in November 2021, but party politics stalled its advancement. Quite simply, the votes on the DC Council are not there yet, but we can change that if we keep educating, organizing, and building coalitions.
Even though I won my race against a field of 23 other candidates in the 2020 general election, I feel a deep responsibility to work to try to improve the system. Competitive elections in DC are here to stay, and our current system is not serving voters or candidates well. We can do better.
Christina Henderson, an independent, is an at-large member of the DC Council.