Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

In January, DC Council Chairman-elect Kwame Brown will vacate his current at-large seat, and the DC Democratic State Committee will appoint a temporary successor. This is a terrible provision of the law. The DCDSC should select someone who doesn’t plan to run permanently, and the Home Rule Act should be amended to remove this appointment power.

The DC Home Rule Act calls for the party committee to fill vacancies in partisan at-large seats, but not in ward seats, until a special election can be held.

In this case, that special election will likely happen during the first week of May 2011. Since Kwame Brown was elected as a Democrat, that means the DCDSC will fill the seat. However, the DCDSC is not representative of the will of the voters, and picking any of the contenders for the seat long-term will lack legitimacy and carry the stink of insider dealing.

Oddly, the Home Rule Act does not require vacated ward seats to be filled by appointment (by a political party or otherwise) on a temporary basis, which seems backwards. If there is an urgency to fill vacated legislative seats immediately, that urgency applies most to vacated ward seats. When a ward seat is empty, that ward’s residents lose representation. When at-large seats are vacated, everyone in the city loses representation equally. At-large seats, both partisan and independent, should not be treated differently.

An appointment to an elected office immediately endows the appointee with unearned incumbent status, giving that person an unfair advantage in the subsequent election.  The appointee will have several months to cast votes on important issues, including the budget, give out favors and accumulate loyalties. A party committee should not have the power to grant the advantage of incumbency. Only the voters should do that.

The party committee is hardly representative of Democrats, let alone all the voters of DC. The DCDSC comprises 82 members.  Of those, 48 members are elected in closed Democratic primaries in presidential election years.  In 2008, 41,443 Democrats cast votes in the Democratic primary, or 10% of all registered voters in the District.  Over 100,000 registered non-Democrats in the District, including Republicans, DC Statehood Greens, and Independents, could not participate in that election by law. 

The remaining 34 members of the DCDSC are not elected in a primary, but rather are selected either by the DCDSC members themselves, or by members of specified affiliated organizations.  Here is a list of the current members of the DCDSC and the votes they received in the 2008 primary election, where applicable.

Making the most generous assumption possible, if you assume that all 80 members were to vote unanimously for one candidate, DCDSC members elected by somewhere between 20,000 and 41,000 unique Democratic voters, or between 4% and 9% of all registered voters in the District as of August 2010, would be appointing the next at-large legislator. 

But one hopeful could reach the 50% plus 1 vote with only the 38 DCDSC members who were not elected in the 2008 primary, plus the 3 lowest vote recipients, who collectively garnered 3338 Democratic votes, or less than 1% of all registered voters as of August 2010, and all of which were cast in Ward 1. 

Unfortunately, there’s more bad news.  The list above does not accurately capture the DCDSC members who will be electing our next at-large councilmember.  The DCDSC held an election on November 4 to select 12 new ex-officio members, who will take office on December 2.  The results of that election are not posted publicly. 

When I called the DCDSC to ask for the results, I was told that there is 1-week certification period, after which time the results would be made available.  We do know that the 12 new members will be 6 men and 6 women from this list.

Were this just a private political organization, it would hardly matter.  But since its members are now legally authorized to perform a fundamentally public function, we are all stakeholders and we deserve transparency. 

Of course, with hundreds of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls to be addressed this fiscal year and next, Council will be conducting urgent business between January and May.  But that argues against allowing the DCDSC to fill the vacancy, not for it.  If the vacant position must be filled, it should be by someone or some entity with a public mandate from an open and fair election.  The DCDSC certainly does not qualify.

Furthermore, leaving Republicans, Independents, and others out of the selection process could be particularly pernicious in the District in the immediate wake of the recent Mayoral primary, after they unsuccessfully fought for enfranchisement in the primary.

There is also a broader point here.  District residents and leaders rightly demand equal political representation in and autonomy from Congress.  Our local politicians juxtapose our status as the capital of the greatest democracy in the world with the District’s historical quasi-colonial status.  It helps the District’s cause when we demonstrate that we govern our own democracy well. 

Many states have similarly poor processes, so one could argue that the District is just acting like most other states by using a fundamentally undemocratic selection method. However, we should lead by example, demonstrating that those in power locally can correct a clear flaw in our system, even when that correction is to their own detriment.

Changing the Home Rule Act requires a public referendum or an act of Congress.  Council should pass a resolution requesting that Congress amend the Home Rule Act as soon as possible to treat at-large vacancies like ward vacancies and leave the seats open until a special election is conducted. Since such a change would not take effect in time for this appointment, the DCDSC should follow the “democratic” part of its own party’s name and leave the choice to the voters by picking someone with no intention to serve long term.

Editor’s note: This post has been in the works for a few days, but the timing turns out to be particularly appropriate given the Post’s editorial this morning also questioning the bizarre logic of this appointment process.