In this photo, a voter steps into a Northwest-based polling station. Less than one-fifth of D.C. voters registered as non-party affiliates, meaning they couldn’t participate in the June 14th Democratic primary. As history has shown, candidates who win the primaries go on to win the general election by default./ Courtesy photo
Months of campaigning, canvassing, and debating came to an end on Tuesday when District voters took to the ballot box during closed Democratic primaries. Seats up for grabs during this election included those belonging to Wards 4,7, and 8 council members as well as D.C. Council member Vincent Orange, one of four at-large representatives.
Seeing as D.C. is a major Democratic city, candidates who garnered the most votes in the primary contest will more than likely breeze through November’s general election and into their coveted position of power. That means nearly one-fifth of non-party affiliated D.C. party voters are left out of the electoral process, a reality that doesn’t sit well with a growing contingent of this constituency.
“We want to go before Congress for D.C. statehood but we disenfranchise our own citizens when we don’t have an open primary system,” Southeast resident and non-party affiliated voter Akili West told AllEyesOnDC. “How are you going to be a state when you only got one party? The Republican Party is weak and people stopped believing in the ideals of the Green Statehood Party.”
West counts among the more than 72,000 registered D.C. voters who don’t identify with the Democratic, Republican, or Statehood Green parties. Last summer, he and five colleagues formed Emancip8, a political action committee that advocates for open primaries and educates voters about what West describes as the perils of the majority party’s stranglehold on local politics.
Emancip8’s inception came, in part, out of frustration with the litany of scandals plaguing the D.C. Council in recent years, including those involving former D.C. Council members Harry Thomas, Jr. and Michael Brown, along with what residents have described as the coalescing of sitting Council members and city officials around D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) as she attempts to secure deals for developers.
For West, this kind of political maneuvering confirmed the Democratic political machine’s exploitation of residents who suffer from few quality education choices, skyrocketing utility bills, and dearth the wrap-around community resources. He went on to cite Ward 8 Council member May’s absence from a Ward 8 Democrats campaign event, saying that D.C. Democratic politicians, feeling secure in their position within the majority party infrastructure, often take their voters for granted.
“I think it would be refreshing to have this type of engagement and shake the game up a little bit, all for the sake of a healthier Ward 8,” West said. “People have become timid, complacent, and with the attitude of resignation. [To them, it’s the thing of] If you can’t beat the politicians, join them. Everyone wants to be on the side of the winner.”
However, West and members of Emancip8 want to ensure that voters understand their power. With the D.C. Democratic primaries over, plans in the works include rallying independent Council members around the idea of open primaries and hosting community events where residents could learn about the benefits of a political contest in which all voters, regardless of the party affiliation, can participate.
Making this goal come to fruition may prove to be an uphill battle.
The prevailing argument for closed primaries centers on the threat of outside forces influencing the affairs of political parties. In 2000, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 against open primaries, saying that they violated political parties’ First Amendment right of free association. In the majority opinion, then-Justice Antonin Scalia argued that allowing non-party affiliated voters to participate in party contests “could be enough to destroy the party.”
Since before Home Rule, much of D.C.’s majority African-American population joined the Democratic Party, due mainly to its support of Civil Rights legislation in prior decades. Since Walter E. Washington (D) became the District’s first mayor, winners of subsequent Democratic primaries for that office have automatically snatched victory in the general election.
With more than 75 percent of the electorate registered under the Democratic Party, this continues to be the case for many Democratic politicians. In the D.C. Council, all but two seats belong to members of the majority party, as mandated in the Home Rule Act of 1975. Those two representatives, Elissa Silverman and David Grosso identify as members of the Independent Party. In years past, Democratic politicians desperate to win office in unfavorable conditions circumvented these electoral rules, switching to the Independent Party rather than face defeat in the party primary.
In recent years, voters nationwide have increasingly shied away from the major parties for more substantive reasons, a phenomenon that has caused a ripple effect throughout several electoral contests. In April, 3 million independent voters couldn’t vote in the closed Democratic primaries to the dismay of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I- VT) who has gained support among young people disillusioned with income inequality, corporate greed, and other issues. Nearly 20 percent of Maryland voters who registered as independent faced the same dilemma that month when they couldn’t participate in closed primaries. In his Baltimore Sun op-ed, David Bittle railed against the Democratic establishment, arguing that closed primaries benefit party elites, and not common folk frustrated with their political leaders’ acquiescence to lobbyists and special interest dollars.
Kentry Kinard, public charter school educator and non-party affiliated voter, shares these sentiments, telling AllEyesOnDC that closed primaries hinder free-thinking people’s ability to hold elected officials accountable during elections.
“The election process is the biggest thing stopping a sincere political reform movement or revolution. As long as there’s dark money in politics and we have the electoral college and superdelegates, I don’t see any way that the people can get a hold on their elected officials, the people who are supposed to represent them,” Kinard, 33, said.
During his interview, the Ward 5 voter spoke candidly about city politics, saying it seems that leaders, including D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D), his representative on the D.C. Council, see their position as a stepping stone to something greater rather than as a means of helping constituents. For Kinard, the leadership style of today’s politicians differ greatly from that of the late Harry Thomas, Sr. and Marion S. Barry, Jr., both of whom he said easily related to the people.
As a non-party affiliated voter, there’s little Kindard could do to influence policy at the ballot box. However, he has found alternatives in making his voice heard, one of which include joining advocacy organizations. He said this method has been of great use, helping him voice his concerns about affordable housing, school choice, the minimum wage, and public transportation.
“The cost [of living is] getting higher and it’s not getting any easier on the residents who’ve been living here for a long time. We’ve seen rapid gentrification in all of the wards,” Kindard said. “That’s why you got to make your own decision. Electoral politics is one part of a holistic process. Get involved through organizations. You can see what’s holding us back and keeping us from having the power that we’re taught we’re supposed to have in our democratic system. We have to get the money out of politics. Right now, the dollars have more of a voice.”
Lifelong D.C. resident and non-party affiliated voter Zaccai Free said he found similar success in acting outside of electoral politics, often attending rallies and testifying at D.C. Council hearings.
Like most independent voters, Free has little faith in the two-party system, a world he said has become inundated with cronyism and pay-to-play politics that don’t benefit voters committed to the major parties. That belief, however, hasn’t stopped him from holding elected officials accountable when it comes to marijuana legalization, arts education, and criminal justice reform.
“Once the politicians get into office, it’s their job to respond to the will of the people,” Free, a Ward 7 resident, told AllEyesOnDC. “The more you push them to represent your interests, the better. People just vote and walk away, forgetting that aspect which I feel is the most important part. If you’re not in your representative’s ear, your vote is a wasted one.”
While the primary contest between D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander and former D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray has sparked interest among politicos, the race has infuriated Free who said he’s frustrated with what he described as the lack of action against high illiteracy and spikes in youth violence in the area.
“It’s sad that we have to choose between an absentee incumbent and a former mayor who survived a scandal by the skin of his teeth,” said Free, who lives in Benning Heights. “There’s a lack of vision in Ward 7. We don’t have anyone who’s connected to the people. The Democrats are doing what the establishment machine often does: keep its power. It’s not about helping the people.”
As the dust settles from the grueling months of Democratic Party infighting and party members unify once again, West said he has his sights set on helping independent voters have their voices heard by the next election. In doing so, he wants to challenge the narrative of Black people giving one group all of their voting power.
“There’s an unfair assumption by African Americans that they have to be Democrats. I’ve always missed out on the primaries and for years, it didn’t matter that much. I felt that there weren’t many political choices. Now things are changing as far as people running outside of the ticket. There are some real independents in this city but you still have to vote for a Democrat, or a Democrat disguised as an Independent.”