Photo by ehnotsomuch42 on Flickr.

Councilmember Mary Cheh announced yesterday that to comply with the federally mandated Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, she will propose moving the District’s primary elections from September to July. Instead, DC should consolidate the primary and general into a single November nonpartisan election, with Instant Runoff Voting.

The MOVE Act requires the District to transmit absentee ballots to military and overseas voters no later than 45 days before an election.  The District’s current practice of holding September primaries does not provide sufficient time for the Board of Elections to prepare and disseminate ballots consistent with the MOVE Act. 

Moving the primaries to August would solve that problem, but many DC residents take vacations in August. July is better, but it would create a worse problem: extended lame-duck periods for incumbents who lose or who are not running for reelection.

This is a recipe for bad governance. Given DC’s Democratic-dominated process, many Councilmembers, the Mayor, and, beginning in 2014, the Attorney General would all remain in office for up to half a year after a presumptive successor has been chosen in the only truly competitive contest.

There are better solutions to the logistical problem created by the MOVE Act, which not only would reduce lame-duck periods and save the cash-strapped Board of Elections money, but, more importantly, they would enfranchise more voters in the District and create more legitimate election results.

Topher Mathews advocated last year for scrapping the primary system and instituting an Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) system in the District.  Implemented in tandem, these two proposals would allow DC to comply with the MOVE Act by providing for a single November election. 

Having the election which really counts in November, rather than June, would also increase overall turnout, since more voters participate in the national election in November than a local-only primary. Some policymakers actually considered moving DC’s primary to February, to coincide with the presidential primary, but that would have made the lame-duck problem far worse.

Among alternatives to the current election system, IRV is relatively easy for voters to comprehend, an important criterion for any election system. Rather than cast a vote for a single candidate, voters rank candidates for each office in order of their preference. 

Votes are counted in rounds.  If there is no candidate with support of a majority after the first round, the least popular candidate is eliminated.  Every ballot is then counted again, this time using the highest ranked remaining candidate on each ballot.  The process is repeated until one candidate receives at least 50 percent of all votes cast. 

The clear advantage of such a system is that it bestows greater legitimacy on an election winner than a winner-by-plurality system.  Furthermore, because voters’ preferences count even after their first choice candidate is eliminated from a race due to insufficient support, IRV systems encourage voters to express their genuine preferences without risking losing influence in the election.

An IRV-based election would also solve the problem DC Democrats are grappling with in the April 26 special election to fill the at-large Council seat. 21 individuals have already picked up candidate petitions. In an electoral field that crowded, it will be next to impossible for any candidate to win a majority of votes. 

This is consistent with the history of special elections in the District.  In the 4 special elections for Council seats that have taken place since 1994, no winning candidate has won a majority of ballots cast.

Many party Democrats are concerned about repeating 1997’s special election where Arrington Dixon, chosen by the Democratic State Committee, lost to then-Republican David Catania in a special election in which Democrats split their votes between two candidates from the party.

Some candidates are alleging that party insiders have pressured them to drop out to unify the Democratic field behind Sekou Biddle and prevent Patrick Mara from winning with a more unified base of Republicans as well as supportive Democrats. An IRV system would eliminate the need for these tactics.

Biddle already has experience winning in similar circumstances.  In 2007, he won a special election for a Board of Education seat.  In a field of 8 candidates, he reigned victorious with 30 percent of the vote, beating a competitor by less than 2 percentage points.

Complying with the MOVE Act is but the most recent reason for the Council to consider omnibus election reform.  In addition to eliminating partisan primaries and adopting an IRV system, the Council should rationalize the process for filling vacated Council seats.  Collectively, these changes will increase voter participation and avoid long lame-duck periods or backroom strategizing, leaving the decision to all residents of DC.

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Mark Jordan is a Capitol Hill resident and public sector management consultant.  From 2000 to 2004, Mark worked on public safety issues for DC Mayor Anthony Williams.