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Posted at 3:45 PM ET, 04/29/2010

A Cleggian idea fit for the District

By Topher Mathews
Nick Clegg
Britain's Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. (AP Photo/Gareth Fuller)

As you may or may not know, a virtual earthquake hit the British political landscape two Thursdays ago. Participating in the country's first-ever televised debate between the three major candidates for prime minister, Nick Clegg, the leader of the perennially third-place Liberal-Democratic Party, shocked the nation by appearing to be a viable candidate for the job.

His party's support has surged, and experts now predict a hung Parliament. If this comes to pass, Clegg may soon find himself in the role of political kingmaker. And Clegg has made it clear that reform of the country's electoral system is a prerequisite for his party's support. 

I think the District ought to take inspiration from the Lib-Dem surge and adopt its own electoral reform.

In the District, for most elected positions the de facto general Election Day isn't in November, it's Democratic primary day in September. Yet despite the fact that the winner of the Democratic primary is virtually guaranteed to win in November, there are always fewer voters actually showing up in September than in November.

In 2008 the general election turnout was four times as large as the primary turnout. While you could attribute the increase in general election turnout to the Obama factor, in 2006 10 percent more voters showed up for the general election than showed up for the primaries.

This was true despite the fact that there was not one seriously competitive race on the general election ballot. In 2002, another general election with neither the president nor any competitive local race on the ballot, there were still 28 percent more voters showing up to the general election than the primary.

One reason for this disparity between primary and general election turnout is that roughly 12 percent of D.C. voters are registered as something other than Democratic (e.g. Republican, Statehood Green or independent). These voters are shut out of the only vote that matters, simply because they choose to exercise their constitutional right not to join the dominant political party (or, like me, no party at all).

Even among Democrats, the turnout is probably higher in November than September. That's because the primaries probably attract the more politically engaged. What we end up with is a mild case of democratic centralism (minus the communism part).

I propose that we do away with the primaries altogether. They serve no legitimate purpose other than to unite the majority around a single candidate, while simultaneously excluding the voices of non-Democrats and the less engaged.

You might say that it's their own damn fault for not registering as Democrats or showing up in September. But I can't think of any reason why it wouldn't simply be a better idea to have the de facto election occur on the same day as the de jure one.

Along with getting rid of the primaries, the District should adopt preferential voting for the general election. How this would work is that all the candidates who would have appeared on the primary ballot would appear on the general election ballot. Voters would then rank the candidates in order of the voter's preference. That way a Statehood Green voter could vote first for her party's candidate, but then weigh in on what Democrat she prefers best.

Similarly, if such a system had been in place in 2006, a Democratic voter who supported the eminently competent Marie Johns could have voted for her without fear of "throwing his vote away." After listing Johns first, he could then have decided whether he preferred Adrian Fenty or Linda Cropp.

The result of such a system is a more inclusive electoral process that produces winning candidates who more accurately reflect the will of the entire electorate, not just that of a particular slice of a particular party.

Topher Mathews blogs at The Georgetown Metropolitan . The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Topher Mathews  | April 29, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, Local blog network  
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