By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — It’s not often that residents of the District of Columbia get to brag about our local government, but this is one of those moments when we are leading the nation. We in the capital are on the cutting edge of entropy.
Even perennial contenders such as Louisiana and New Jersey can’t compete with the record of dysfunction and corruption we have compiled in recent weeks. Our city council chairman, Kwame Brown, resigned and pleaded guilty over fraudulently obtaining a loan to buy a powerboat. Three aides to Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign have pleaded guilty to federal charges, and the U.S. attorney here says the whole race was “corrupted by a massive infusion of cash that was illegally concealed from the voters.”
Three members of the D.C. Council have called for Gray to resign over what is either wrongdoing or incompetence. The calls would undoubtedly be more numerous if an obviously superior replacement were available. Councilman Marion Barry, anyone?
We in the District have, in short, seen the future. We have already arrived at where the rest of the country is headed. The voters have checked out. The primaries have been hijacked by a small, unrepresentative group that chooses bad candidates. And these candidates, confident that nobody is paying attention, brazenly ignore already flimsy campaign-finance laws.
We had a head start in the race to the bottom for reasons unique to the District, mostly its history as a ward of the federal government. Relatively competent leadership under Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty masked some of the rot at the core of the city’s governance.
But our skid has been aided by our primary process, which, as in the rest of the nation, is increasingly dominated by a small band of partisans who select candidates of diminishing quality. The District, like much of the nation, has a closed primary process, which excludes political independents from voting. Because Democrats have a stranglehold on politics in this town, 117,000 independents and other non-Democrats are essentially disenfranchised — a quarter of registered voters.
A case can be made that our closed primary system gave us Gray. Turnout in the hotly contested 2010 mayoral primary was 40 percent, and Gray beat Fenty by 13,000 votes of 134,000 cast. It’s not a stretch to think that independents, had they been allowed to vote in the Democratic primary, could have rescued Fenty — and spared the city its collapse into corruption.
I am one such disenfranchised voter. I refuse to register with a political party and therefore have no say until the general election, when the outcome is pre-determined. As such, I pay little attention to local government and expect even less from it. I accept that my car may be ticketed even if I have paid my meter, that my property tax payment may not be credited to my account, that the home inspector may never arrive to examine my renovations or that the dead tree across the street may not be removed before it falls.
Evidently I’m not alone in my alienation. Turnout in April’s primary was 17 percent of eligible voters — and this doesn’t take into account all the people who aren’t allowed to vote because they refuse to register with a party.
Variations of this are playing out across the country, particularly in Republican primaries where the tea party has been active. When the electorate comes to expect nothing of its leaders, candidates are left to appeal exclusively to the small number of characters — usually highly ideological — who determine the outcome. With so few voters paying attention, there’s more room to engage in shenanigans — from Gray’s illegally funded “shadow campaign,” or the attempt by Michigan Republican Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s campaign to get him on the ballot using 1,600 fake or duplicate signatures.
Shifting to an “open primary” system wouldn’t by itself solve our problems. California adopted such a method, but turnout in the first primary of the new arrangement was abysmal. Restoring voter engagement in the District would take something radical, such as voting rights in Congress, statehood or — my preferred solution — returning us to Maryland, just as Virginia took back its slice of the District long ago.
But in the absence of such fixes, we should at least be given the chance to vote in primaries regardless of party affiliation. This one modest change might well have spared us the catastrophe of Vincent Gray — and that should be reason enough to give it a try.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group