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The system of elections in the District of Columbia gives a big advantage to councilmembers who represent half of the wards over those elected from the other half. This discourages good councilmembers from running for mayor or council chair.
Half the council seats, for wards 1, 3, 5, and 6 and two of the at-large seats, come up for election in the same years as the mayor and council chair (such as this year). The other half, wards 2, 4, 7, and 8 and the other two at-large seats, run in the even-
numbered years in between (such as 2012 and 2016).
This means councilmembers holding one of the mayoral/chair election cycle seats must choose between running for re-election or trying for higher office. Meanwhile, their counterparts in the other half of the seats can avoid taking risks and run for chair or mayor without giving up their seats.
Since half of all councilmembers must vacate their seats to run for mayor or council chair, the mayoral system dissuades some of the city’s most experienced and productive leaders from running for DC’s top government posts. The data show that this is indeed happening.
Since DC home rule was enacted in 1973, those in off-mayoral/chair seats have run for council chair 4 times and for mayor 17 times. Conversely, those in mayoral/chair election cycle seats have run for council chair 3 times and for mayor 6 times (and 4 of which were incumbent council chairs).
If this continues then one can expect more candidates — and more mayors — from Wards 2, 4, 7 and 8, thus giving an undue advantage to councilmembers and their constituents from those wards. Indeed, all three DC mayors elected with prior council experience (four if you count Marion Barry twice) came from one of those wards, and only Arrington Dixon and Linda Cropp have ascended from off-cycle seats to chair. Even Cropp is a particular exception as she won during a special election, and thus her council seat wasn’t at risk.
What can be done?
DC could extend council seats to 6-year terms and have councilmembers alternate running between mayoral and non-mayoral elections. Or, there could be separate primaries for chair and mayor, similar to what we do for presidential elections.
Even better, we can follow the federal model and let people stand for two offices at once, as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan did during the 2012 election while running for vice president. Or, perhaps DC rearranges the election calendar so all council seats come up for election in council-only elections, while the chair and mayor have their own elections.
DC should explore all options to ensure its election calendar and political circumstance doesn’t discourage quality candidates. The current system is unfair to half the city. Of all places, the nation’s capital needs a system that encourages its political talent to seek higher office and is fair to all its voters.