There’s a tradition in D.C. politics: When a seat is open on the D.C. Council, the field gets so big that the winner gets elected without coming close to a majority. (In heavily Democratic D.C., where general election victories are virtually guaranteed for the party’s nominee, winning the primary is what counts.) In this Tuesday’s election, all the Council races have incumbents who exemplify how majority doesn’t rule in the District.
Ward 2’s Jack Evans won his first D.C. Council victory in 1991 in a hotly contested special election—even though more than two-thirds of voters picked someone else. A year later, Evans ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination, and he hasn’t seen a serious contender since. This year, he is unopposed.
In 2015, special elections in Ward 4 and Ward 8 drew 13 candidates each. Ward 4’s Brandon Todd won 43 percent, a solid victory in a crowded field. In Ward 8, LaRuby May won less than 27 percent, but it was more than anyone else got.
Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander earned just 34 percent in the 2007 special election, but with 17 opponents, she won easily.
At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange has eked out three victories against split opposition. When first elected in Ward 5 in 1998, Orange won 37 percent, while the runners-up won 35 and 22 percent. In the 2011 at-large special election, Orange’s 29 percent was enough; second and third place combined for 45 percent of the vote. Orange narrowly won re-election in 2012 in a four-way race, this time with with 42 percent.
In total, nine of the 11 Democrats on the Council won their first race without a majority.
Phil Mendelson won his first primary in 1998 with just 17 percent of the vote, launching a long career on the Council, which he now chairs.
The two independents who hold the Council seats reserved for non-Democrats are hard to compare to the rest of their colleagues. They each were elected in general election races where voters could choose up to two candidates. It’s practically impossible to win a majority of the votes in these races. Twenty five percent of votes cast would represent a majority of the voters, assuming everyone votes twice. In reality, many voters opt to vote for just one candidate. Either way, David Grosso’s 2012 victory, with 20 percent of votes cast, and Elissa Silverman’s 2014 victory, with 15 percent, both translate to far less than a majority of voters.