DC Should Have Open Primaries

Phil Pannell, Executive Director of the nonprofit Anacostia Coordinating Council. Photo: Akiima Price

Several reform-minded and good government activists are working feverishly to place Initiative 83 on the 2024 DC general election ballot to establish Rank Choice Voting and open primaries in all elections. They have formed the Make All Votes Count DC campaign. Full disclosure: I am the treasurer of that campaign committee.

In my August 2021 East of the River column I gave my reasons for supporting Rank Choice Voting (also called Instant Runoff Voting): https://eastoftheriverdcnews.com/2021/08/10/give-us-ranked-choice-voting/

Open primaries would permit registered independents to vote in the primaries of the DC political parties. DC currently has closed primaries that permit only those registered with a particular party to vote in those elections. Thirteen states have closed primaries: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Kansas Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

There are movements in practically all those states to establish open primaries. Recently six former governors (both Democratic and Republican) of Pennsylvania issued a letter urging that their state get rid of the closed primary system. Prominent among those six is Ed Rendell, who is a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, the governing organization of the national Democratic Party.

I am a newcomer to supporting open primaries. Since the beginning of Home Rule, I have held several DC Democratic Party positions: Young Democrats president, alternate national committeeman, Ward 8 committeeman, Ward 8 president, at-large committeeman and recording secretary of the DC Democratic State Committee (DCDSC). As an active and partisan Democrat, I strongly supported closed primaries because I could not fathom having independents vote in those elections. I was of the opinion that independents had no right to vote in Democratic primaries. In retrospect, I am ashamed that I held that position of exclusivity. I have evolved in my thinking and feel that the Democratic Party should not be similar to a fraternity or sorority. Or even worse, a gang. The pivotal event that made me an advocate of open primaries was Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 49% of U.S. voters consider themselves independents, with the Democratic and Republican parties dividing the other half of the electorate. Young voters in particular are not impressed or embracing of the two-party system. No candidate can win the White House or statewide offices with only the registrants of a particular party. If Democratic party candidates are to be successful at the polls, they must win the votes of registered independents. An open primary process would give independents some skin in the game and may help generate enthusiasm and volunteers in the general election. If Hillary Clinton had received more independent votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, we would have been spared the nightmare of Donald Trump and his Supreme Court appointments.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am in no way encouraging more independent registrations. I still ardently believe that the Democratic Party is the most effective political vehicle in the quest for social and economic opportunity, progress and justice. Also, when it comes to politics, party labels are of paramount importance to me. When a person tells me that he or she is an independent, it immediately means nothing to me because an independent could be a fascist or a socialist. At the age of 73, I treasure time and convenience. When people let me know that they are Democrats, I immediately feel a political connection. It is similar to people stating their religious denominations. However, we Democrats must expand our pool of supporters and voters for our candidates.

We DC Democrats live in the bluest bubble in the nation. Joe Biden received 92% of the DC votes for president in the 2020 general election. For most practical political purposes, DC is a one-party city-state. Unfortunately, the DC Democratic State Committee (DCDSC), the local governing organization of the DC Democratic Party, has become captive to that way of thinking and acting. It has filed a lawsuit to keep Initiative 83 off the ballot. The DCDSC currently has no discernible agenda for election reform but is fighting in court against giving voters the opportunity to determine the conduct of future elections. So much for democracy.

It is disheartening to see our DC Democratic Party leadership opposing change and battling to maintain the political status quo and antiquated election processes. If the DC Democratic Party leaders do not want independents to vote in primaries, then at least spare the tax-paying independents the indignity of having to pay for their exclusion from a government-run election process. Exclusionary political parties should select or elect their nominees for public office by political conventions or caucuses that they pay for.

Political reformers who are concerned and involved with efforts to expand and increase participation in voting have been in the vanguard of advocating for voting by mail, same-day registration and voting, early voting and universal registration. In the next DC local elections, undocumented residents or non-citizens (depending on your nominal preference) will be able to vote. Rank Choice Voting and open primaries are in that litany of change and progress.

If you feel that I am demonstrating the fervor of the newly converted, you are absolutely correct. I apologize if my evangelizing irritates you but I must spread the good news. I now strongly believe that the open primary advocates are on the right side of history. Hopefully, our local Democratic Party leaders will come to realize that closed primaries are the result of closed eyes, minds and hearts. They should open their arms and embrace the independents. They may just hug us Democrats back.

Long-time Ward 8 community activist Philip Pannell can be contacted at philippannell@comcast.net.