By LISA D.T. RICE
Change is difficult for humans to embrace. I know it. You know it. We like our routines and hold onto them for dear life, often to our detriment, robbing ourselves of the opportunity to evolve and grow, break the mold and truly make a difference.
Change may be hard for Washington, D.C.’s politicos, too – as Peter Rosenstein demonstrates in his recent opinion piece in the Blade. Yet, open primaries and ranked choice voting – the two electoral reforms proposed in the Make All Votes Count Act of 2024, also known as Ballot Initiative 83 – will help our city’s democracy evolve, grow, and improve. They will help us live up to our democratic ideals: more voters’ voices heard, more true choice for voters and politicians who work harder for all of us and are truly accountable to We the People.
We can do better than the status quo that Rosenstein seems to celebrate in his piece. One in every six D.C. voters is a registered independent. That includes me. Yet, under the status quo, our party primaries – which are taxpayer-funded – are closed to these 86,000 voters. Of course, in a nearly one-party city like D.C., the Democratic primary is the most important election.
Our constitutional right to vote should not – and does not – require subscribing to a political party. Yet, registered independents are denied that right in this all-important contest – even though we pay for it with our tax dollars. It doesn’t have to be this way; a majority of states already allow independents to vote in party primaries.
Our closed primaries also discourage change-agent candidates who might appeal to those 86,000 voters. Meanwhile, our single-choice elections discourage first-time and diverse candidates who fear they might “split the vote” or are told to “wait their turn.” Our single-choice elections also mean that candidates can be nearly guaranteed election even if they barely eke out a narrow slice of the Democratic primary vote (sometimes as low as 20 or 25 percent).
With our current election rules closing off real voice and opportunity for many, party bosses end up dictating both the party platform and the policies that come out of the Wilson Building.
There’s one thing our current system is very good at: preserving the status quo. In D.C.’s 2022 elections, only one incumbent lost their attempt for re-election (to another incumbent — a Democrat turned independent — seeking a new seat). All the others won.
Yet, there’s a reason that the electoral reform movement is gaining momentum here and elsewhere: survey after survey shows we are not happy with the status quo. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of Americans are not satisfied with how democracy is working in the U.S.
If we want to change the results, we need to change the system. If you want democracy to work better for you, then support for open primaries and ranked choice voting is obvious.
Open primaries in D.C. would empower all registered voters, including independents, to fully participate in our taxpayer-funded primary elections. We must have that right. Voter suppression in D.C. must end.
Meanwhile, ranked choice voting empowers voters, provides more genuine choice in elections, and results in more representative outcomes. Candidates must appeal to a broader audience, winning a minimum of 50 percent of the vote. In our current system, a candidate needs only a plurality in both the primary and general elections to prevail.
Our politicians should work harder for all of our votes. Ranked choice voting is one of the tools to make that happen. (In his piece, Rosenstein questions whether politicians will actually work harder with ranked choice voting. It’s a simple math problem – you have to work harder to win over 51 percent of voters than to win over just 20 or 25 percent.)
Currently 51 cities, counties, and states use ranked choice voting –in primaries, caucuses, and general elections. Since 2005, there have been more than 650 elections using ranked choice voting. Naysayers try to claim that ranked choice voting is too complicated for us. Far from it.
We rank things in our everyday lives – it’s unsurprising that, across those 650-plus elections, voter understanding and satisfaction is high. Cities across the country have elected historically diverse representatives using ranked choice voting, including the first majority-LGBTQ+ city council in Salt Lake City, Utah; a majority-women city council in New York City; and the first majority-people of color council in Minneapolis. In D.C., election reform can help usher more new and diverse voices into office.
One last point: ranked choice voting is sometimes referred to as instant runoff voting. But unlike traditional runoffs, it happens all at once and it doesn’t cost more money or voter time. Runoffs also tend to have a dramatic drop in turnout from regular primaries and general elections. Why should the District of Columbia spend money on inefficient, low-turnout runoffs? Why not spend it on helping our homeless population, investing in public health or improving our schools? That seems a better use of taxpayer funding than helping ensure the status quo in our politics.
Lisa D. T. Rice, a native Washingtonian, is an ANC Commissioner representing single member district 7B07, which includes residents of the Penn Branch, Dupont Park, and Fort Davis neighborhoods. She is a registered Independent and the proposer of the MAKE ALL VOTES COUNT ACT OF 2024.