DC’s Democratic Party sues over ballot measure that would allow ranked choice voting, open primaries

D.C.’s Democratic Party is suing the District and its Board of Elections over a ballot initiative that could change how primary and general elections work.

The lawsuit centers on the “Make All Votes Count Act” which, if approved by voters, would bring open primaries to D.C. and also allow for ranked choice voting.

With ranked choice voting, a voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, rather than selecting just one. If a candidate with a clear majority of the votes doesn’t emerge, the last place candidate would be removed from contention and those who voted for them would see their second-place choice count.

The measure recently earned approval from the Board of Elections to move forward in the process, which could end with it on D.C. voters’ ballots.

In court filings, the D.C. Democratic Party claims the BOE is “not authorized to approve this Initiative, and the process of voting in local elections in Washington, D.C. cannot be changed through an Initiative.”

According to the party, the initiative violates D.C.’s Home Rule charter because it states that the mayor, D.C. Council and attorney general be elected on a partisan basis. The lawsuit also claims the measure violates the U.S. Constitution.

“The most fundamental problem with the Make All Votes Count Initiative is that the open primary provision violates the D.C. Democratic Party members’ and voters’ right to freedom of association guaranteed by the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” the lawsuit stated.

Open primaries, or primary elections that do not require voters to have a party affiliation, are currently conducted in slightly less than half of U.S. states, including Virginia.

In July, an “opinion and order” from the BOE stated the measure is not unconstitutional.

In its filing, the party said if the measure was approved by voters, independents would “very easily dominate” primaries.

The party also believes ranked choice voting would make the process more confusing, especially in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8 — historically undeserved, predominantly Black communities. The party claims it has witnessed similar confusion during elections for D.C.’s at-large council member.

“Many of those voters report their confusion about selecting more than one candidate for what appears to be the same office,” the filing said.

Attorney Johnny Barnes, who filed the suit, also claimed if this process was in play in 1975, the late former Mayor Marion Barry might have lost during his contested race, which resulted in a recount.

Those in favor of the act said it would not make the process more confusing and would put an end to what they call “hold your nose” voting, in which person votes for a perceived winner over someone who would best represent them.

A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for November.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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