Posted on August 10, 2023

D.C. Democratic Party Sues to Keep Ranked Choice Voting and Open Primaries Off the Ballot

Martin Austermuhle, DCist, August 7, 2023

The D.C. Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit aiming to keep a ranked choice voting and open primaries from getting onto the city’s ballot for next year, saying that both changes to how D.C. runs its elections would run afoul of the city’s charter and the U.S. Constitution.

In a 33-page lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court, attorneys for the party’s leadership say the D.C. Board of Elections improperly gave the green light to a proposed ballot initiative that, if approved by voters, would call on the D.C. Council to adopt ranked choice voting and open primaries by 2026. The party is asking a D.C. judge to nullify the board’s ruling, which would effectively kill the ballot initiative.

Under ranked choice voting, voters can rank multiple candidates in any given race in their order of preference; if no one candidate wins an outright majority, the worst-performing contender is dropped and votes are recalculated using voters’ second choices, and so on until one candidate wins a majority of support. And under open primaries, the city’s 85,000 independent voters would be allowed to participate in a partisan primary of their choice; currently, they’re only allowed to vote in general elections.

Proponents argue ranked-choice voting moves away from the current system where winners in crowded fields can win with a fraction of the vote {snip}

As for open primaries, the initiative’s proponents say it would allow D.C. voters who are not registered with a political party to vote in primary elections, where many of the city’s political races are ultimately decided because of the overall dominance of Democrats in local elections. {snip}

But in the lawsuit, Democratic Party attorney Johnny Barnes argues that both proposed changes would violate local law and the constitution. He writes that open primaries would violate the Home Rule Charter’s requirement that the mayor, D.C. Council, and attorney general be elected on a partisan basis, and would violate Democrats’ constitutional rights to freely associate by allowing non-Democrats to influence the outcomes of primary elections.

Barnes also says the ballot initiative would unlawfully require the city to spend money implementing ranked choice voting (ballot initiatives can’t force the city to spend any money), and would additionally violate the city’s Human Rights Act because it would discriminate against Black and low-income voters who could be confused by ranked choice voting.

And in a non-legal argument, Barnes says in the lawsuit that had ranked choice voting been allowed when the city gained home rule in 1975, Marion Barry may never have become mayor. “Imagine the local history in the District of Columbia, for the past 45 years, had the outcome of elections been determined by open primaries and ranked choice voting!” he writes.