Behind the Scenes of Muriel Bowser’s Primary Victory: The Good, the Bad, and the Ranked Choice Voting Solution in Washington, D.C.

by Dania N. Korkor // Published April 23, 2014
your vote counts

As the returns poured in from precincts around the District of Columbia on April 1st, it became increasingly clear that the Democratic mayoral primary had evolved from a fractured field to a race primarily between two candidates. The two frontrunners, incumbent Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser, had led six other candidates in polls leading up to the primary election. Ultimately, Bowser took 44% of the vote, a plurality sufficient to secure the Democratic nomination.

From a fair representative perspective, there are some positive takeaways from this primary election. Notably, Bowser is positioned to become the first female mayor of the District of Columbia since Sharon Pratt Kelly, who served as the first and only female mayor of Washington, D.C., from 1991–1995. FairVote’s Representation 2020 Campaign emphasizes the importance of parity in elected offices; as of January 2014, women were mayors of only 13 of the 100 biggest cities in the United States.

Moreover, unlike most D.C. elections, voters will still have a choice in the general election. The New York Times suggests that Bowser will face “the most serious general-election challenge in memory, from an independent candidate, David A. Catania, who has won citywide elections as a council member.” A competitive general election race allows voters the opportunity to cast meaningful votes for mayoral candidates outside of the Democratic Party.

Bowser’s electoral primary win also brings to light several systemic issues with District elections that are deeply problematic – issues that could be resolved if the District followed the editorial suggestion of the Washington Post and adopted the proposal made by four District councilmembers to adopt ranked choice voting for the city’s primary and general elections.

Voting Your True Beliefs: An election field of eight strong candidates coalesced into a two-candidate race, benefitting the candidates with long-standing institutional ties. Earlier in the winter, polls showed a fractured race. The incumbent Vince Gray was ahead with 24% support, but his challengers were tightly bunched and close behind. As the election approached, however, voters started making strategic calculations. Legal controversies surrounding Gray led to an anti-Gray majority in the polls. Bowser’s position in second, however narrow, led a growing number of voters to unite around her. The leading candidates reinforced the assumption of a two-candidate race. Bowser consistently reminded voters that she was the viable alternative to Gray, and her campaign went as far as to say “[t]here are only two options in this race.”

One of the common complaints at election polls was that voters wanted to support one of the other six candidates, but were convinced that those candidates had no chance to win the election and their votes would thus be wasted. Instead of voting their honest preference, voters preferred to have their vote count toward a viable candidate. A Washington Post article portrays this situation well: “Yari Lorenzo, 39, a Takoma mother of two, said she is most attracted to an outsider candidate, restaurateur Andy Shallal, and would vote for him if Gray weren’t on the ballot. ‘But I’m voting for Muriel Bowser,’ Lorenzo said, explaining that she felt Bowser had the better chance to unseat Gray.” Other trailing candidates, such as city councilors Tommy Wells, Jack Evans and Vincent Orange, experienced similar frustration.

This scenario does a disservice to D.C. voters. Elections should not be a guessing game in which voters might guess wrong in abandoning their real, favorite choice. Nor should they have to worry about a candidate they really dislike becoming mayor only because a majority vote is fractured among several similar candidates. Voters would not have to play this game if D.C. used ranked choice voting.

Low Turnout: Turnout in the election was extremely low, following the pattern of a growing number of American cities. In fact, it was “the lowest in a mayoral primary in 40 years of District home rule.” Just 22.5% of registered voters turned out in the primary, less than half of turnout in 1994 and far lower than 2010.

The Washingtonian pointed out what this means for Bowser’s mandate as mayor, if she wins the general election. Of the 646,449 D.C. residents, 446,194 are registered to vote. Of those registered, 337,980 are registered as Democrats. Of those registered Democrats, only 81,145 voted in the mayoral primary. Of those who turned out, Bowser received the support of 35,899 voters. That sliver of voters - only 8% of the city’s electorate - is all Bowser will have needed to become mayor, absent an upset bid from Catania.

There are several factors that generally tend to decrease voter turnout, but it’s time for D.C. to examine a broader range of remedies. And D.C. is not alone in its need to jumpstart turnout: a 2013 study of 340 mayoral elections in 144 U.S. cities from 1996-2012 found that voter turnout of registered voters in those cities averaged at 25.8%, while FairVote’s study of turnout in the 22 largest cities in the United States over the past several election cycles found a trend of low and declining turnout that in some cities has fallen into the single digits.

Exceptionally Early Primary: The primary election this year took place at the beginning of April instead of September, due primarily to the federal MOVE Act. MOVE is designed to allow overseas voters to participate in both primary and general elections, but the new early primary date had serious downsides. First, it has resulted in a long period of time when incumbents are still serving even after being rejected by voters – both in the case of Mayor Gray and city councilor Jim Graham. Additionally, candidates had less time than usual to campaign for the primary, voters were not used to the new timing, and weather was worse during campaigning. The latter was an especially big problem this year, as campaigning took place largely during the later winter snows and early spring rains.

Reform SolutionsFairVote, a non-profit organization dedicated to fair elections, fair citizen participation, and fair representation, supports and advocates for instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting (RCV), as a method of ensuring genuine voter preference in elections. RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then uses those rankings to elect candidates with broad support.

Under RCV, voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their favorite candidate. RCV can be used for single-winner elections as well as multi-seat elections. RCV empowers voters with more meaningful choice, minimizes strategic voting, and creates a positive atmosphere where candidates campaign to the voters rather than against each other.

If D.C. adopted RCV, its elections would not force voters to pick between two “viable” candidates and instead would let them vote their consciences. FairVote is not alone in advocating for this reform. Last month, Councilmember David Grosso introduced legislation to establish RCV for D.C.’s primary and general elections. The bill has since been backed by three other councilmembers.

To improve turnout, we hope the District joins its Maryland neighbors to the north, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, in adopting resolutions grounded in FairVote’s Promote Our Vote project. A voter turnout task force created by the resolution in Montgomery County will soon issue its recommendations. In Takoma Park, the passage of such a resolution led directly to concrete changes in voting policies last year that will help boost turnout, including giving candidates the ability to campaign in apartment buildings. Candidates’ inability to reach voters in apartment building in D.C. exacerbated the limited door-to-door canvassing time in this year’s primary election cycle.

As for the timing of this mayoral race, April 1st is the earliest a city primary election has taken place in D.C. We would suggest a later primary date, perhaps one in June, even if that means having to separate the presidential primary and city election primary in 2016. Furthermore, the District could take the even bolder step of opening up its general elections by adopting FairVote’s “Top Four Primary” plan: one where four candidates would advance from an open primary, and would then face off in a ranked choice voting election in November. This year, for instance, that might have meant a November election using RCV among Bowser, Gray, Wells and Catania. Turnout would almost certainly increase in that election, and voters would have more of a chance to consider the candidates.

The D.C. mayoral primary race was a spirited contest, and Muriel Bowser’s victory in the Democratic primary is a positive step toward reducing the gender gap in representation. But there were too many negative factors associated with the election: voters feeling as though they could not vote their preference, low voter turnout, and poor timing of the race. Fortunately, there are reform solutions that can directly address these flaws, maximizing the power of voters and creating a more representative democracy.