Photo by jcolman on Flickr.

During Hurricane Sandy, I passed the time by reading the legislative history of the DC Home Rule Act. This 1973 bill, which gave District residents the right to vote for local leaders who can make local laws for the first time in 99 years, established the system of government DC has today. But what might have been?

Congress considered a lot of different alternatives for Home Rule. Very different bills passed the House and Senate. The House made some amendments on the floor, and then the conference committee made some of its own changes to reconcile the House and Senate versions.

One system that almost was: nonpartisan elections for DC Council and Mayor.

DC’s current system includes a 13-member council. 4 at-large members and the chairman run for office citywide, while each of the 8 wards elects one member. All run in partisan elections, with primaries in April (September up until last year) and the general election in November.

But neither the House nor Senate bill specified that. The House bill had the 13 members, 5 at-large, but the Council would have chosen the chairman from among the 5 at-large members each January. (2249) The Senate bill, meanwhile, had only 3 at-large members (2 plus the chairman) for a total of 11 councilmembers. The voters would choose the chairman at-large directly, as they do today. (2887)

House bill had nonpartisan elections with runoff

The House bill also specified nonpartisan elections for Mayor and Council. In the open general election, the top vote-getter would win only if he or she received at least 40% of the votes. Otherwise, there would be a runoff 21 days after the election. For elections for 1 person (like ward councilmember or mayor), the 2 top finishers would participate in the runoff; for at-large elections with 2 to be elected, the runoff would involve the top 3. (2347)

The House’s version put elections in November of even-numbered years that aren’t Presidential election years (where they are today), but the Senate placed them on Presidential years with primaries in September.

Adams. Photo from Wikipedia.

The conference committee ultimately picked the Senate’s option of partisan elections and a chairman elected in his or her own race, but the House’s 13-member council and choice of years (3013-3014). Rep. Brock Adams (D-WA, 1927-2004, US Rep. 1965-1977, US Secretary of Transportation 1977-1979, Senator 1987-1993) and his staff prepared a memo during conference on the major House-Senate differences. He wrote,

Both these bills leave much to be desired; to my thinking, elections should be partisan, without runoffs (only Southern states have them) in even numbered non-Presidential years, with primaries in September and generals in November … with no runoff (like Seattle). (2891)

Business, labor, parties all favored partisan elections

Most local groups favored partisan elections as well. Rep. Donald Fraser (D-MN, b. 1924, US Rep. 1963-1979, Mayor of Minneapolis 1980-1993) said that “Testimony before the House District of Columbia Committee was overwhelmingly in favor of party designation for these elections.”

Walter F. McArdle, president of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, spoke in favor of partisan elections, as did George Apperson, president of Greater Washington Central Labor Council, who told the committee:

We think it would be wrong to prohibit partisan politics in elections in the District of Columbia. Partisan politics helps to focus responsibility and that’s what we need in the District—responsible politics and responsible government.

The DC Republican Party also agreed, saying, “There is no question but the present political parties in the District of Columbia can provide the machinery by which a candidate aspiring to office can best bring his or her views of the electorate.” So did the League of Women Voters.

Fraser concluded, “In my own State of Minnesota, nonpartisan elections for mayor and city council in the large cities did not work well. The State legislature has reinstated party designation. I believe this is wise. (1684)

Hatch Act drove push for nonpartisan elections

If so many people supported partisan elections, how did the House pass a bill with nonpartisan? The committee reported out a bill with partisan elections, but a dissenting commentary from a number of Republicans who opposed a great many provisions of the bill (including Arlington, Virginia Rep. Joel Broyhill, 1919-2006, US Rep. 1953-1974), argued for nonpartisan:

Based on information recently provided by the United States Conference of Mayors’ that a total of 152 cities with populations over 100,000, 92 or 60% conduct nonpartisan elections, 49 or 32% conduct partisan elections, and for 11 cities the information is unknown. … Several such cities with nonpartisan elections are Detroit, Seattle, Oakland, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Francisco, San Diego, San Antonio, Memphis, and Columbia.

It would appear that in a city such as Washington, D.C., which is the Nation’s Capital, where the Federal and local interests are so inextricably interwoven, that nonpartisan elections would best serve the interests of the Federal government, as well as the local residents. …

It is doubtful if other cities of the size of the District of Columbia have as many Federal employees within their boundaries. Obviously, the drafters of this legislation recognized this in trying to amend the Hatch Act and permit the Federal employees to be partisan political candidates for the office of Council Member and Mayor. How much better it would be to avoid the question of amendment of the Hatch Act, which as is argued elsewhere in these views would undoubtedly result eventually in the repeal of the Hatch Act in its entirety, and hold the elections, in the District of Columbia, if authorized, on a nonpartisan basis. (1585-1586)

The subcommitee and committee markup sessions don’t include a lot of debate over the merits of partisan or nonpartisan elections, but they do contain voluminous debate over the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from participating in partisan political activity.

During Senate debate, then-freshman Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM, Senator 1973-2009), said, “in the District of Columbia, 135,141 or 40% of voters would be subject to Hatch and unable to actively participate in the election process.”

In fact, the Civil Service Commission issued an opinion that the then-sitting Mayor and City Councilmembers, who were federal appointees at the time, “would have to resign in order to run for office” under the new Home Rule system. (3613) Congress amended the Home Rule Act in 1974 to exempt the mayor and councilmembers from the Hatch Act, but problems with the way the Hatch Act applies to DC continue to this day.

At the beginning of floor debate over the bill, the chairman of the District of Columbia Committee introduced a “Committee substitute” that made a number of changes (2361). One of these was to replace partisan elections with nonpartisan. That provision never came up in the floor debate itself, and was part of the bill the House passed, but the members of the District of Columbia Committee who’d passed the original bill with partisan elections put it back in conference.

All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in Home Rule for the District of Columbia, 1973-1974, Background and Legislative History of H.R. 9056, H.R. 9682, and Related Bills Culminating in the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act, Approved December 24, 1973 (Public Law 93-198), Serial No, S-4, US Government Printing Office, December 31, 1974.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.