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D.C. voting-rights activists specialize in fleeting and desperate gestures, like a naked fan streaking across the diamond in the ninth inning of a blowout. In the 2000 presidential race, one District elector protested the lack of congressional representation by withholding her electoral-college vote; this widened George W. Bush’s margin of victory from four votes to five. Two months ago, while a flailing Trent Lott spoke up for affirmative action in the hope of escaping oblivion, District activists tried to get him to address black disenfranchisement in the nation’s capital.

But D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans’ new proposal to move the District’s presidential primary from May to January is something else. Rather than hitching the voting-rights caboose to history’s caboose as usual, scheduling the primary to be first in the nation would have District citizens driving the locomotive.

There’s more at stake than bragging rights. Along with the distinction comes the political sway that Iowa and New Hampshire have hogged for decades. Where Iowans have exploited their pole position to squeeze promises of ethanol subsidies from White House hopefuls, Washingtonians could demand support for the full franchise.

The move would also end the national press corps’ denial that local life exists in the District. Suddenly, TV crews would be passing the mike under the seldom-seen faces of average Washingtonians for the “I’m still undecided” opportunities that other Americans take for granted. Instead of pulling pancake-house duty in the Concord dead zone, reporters would be forced through the doors of Ben’s Chili Bowl. D.C.’s plight would dominate the news cycle every four years.

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Standing between the District and this dream is the Democratic National Committee, representing the only party that matters in this city. The DNC says that a D.C. vault to January would violate the hallowed principles embodied in…party bylaws. By way of punishment, the party would dock 30 delegates from the District’s allotment of 38 at the 2004 national convention in Boston. (Evans’ chief of staff, John Ralls, says that DNC officials have threatened further that the diminished delegation would take part in the proceedings from the back row.)

Imagine that: D.C.’s elected representatives wouldn’t be able to vote!

The DNC seems to think that’s enough of a threat to bring the District to heel. “We are very confident that we’re going to find common ground with the D.C. Democratic Party on a date that is fair, competitive, and within the party’s rules,” says DNC spokesperson Guillermo Meneses in the soft tones of compromise.

But there’s no reason for the District to meet anyone halfway—certainly not for the sake of saving its convention votes. Nothing gets decided at the convention anymore. Presidential nominations are decided in the first few weeks of primary season: Whoever wins the early rounds locks up the press, the polls, and the money the rest of the way.

In 2000, Bill Bradley faded out in February, leaving the nomination to Al Gore by mid-March—before Democrats in 20 states and the District ever cast their votes. By May, when D.C. held its primary, only about 19,000 Democrats turned out to ensure Gore’s avalanche victory over freak-show candidate Lyndon LaRouche.

Under these conditions, timing is everything, and size means nothing. The concept of “one person, one vote” gives way to the opinions of a scattering of cranky voters in a handful of smallish states. The Iowa caucuses aren’t even proper elections—they’re more like a series of kaffeeklatsches—and yet the 30th-largest state has more influence than California over who becomes the nominee. Just because it goes first.

It’s not a voting bloc of eight delegates—or 38—that matters. It’s the PR victories, the early headlines, that establish the front-runner. And if the republic’s leaders are to be chosen through this anti-democratic system of selection, then D.C. voters, the national experts on electoral injustice, might as well be the first to decide. Once the District announced its election results, that would be that. The DNC can shrink the D.C. delegation to the size of Guam’s or American Samoa’s, but it can’t decertify the winning candidate’s gains, no matter what its bylaws say.

D.C. isn’t the first jurisdiction to contemplate this leapfrog strategy. New Hampshire has a law that requires it to move ahead of any state challenging its primary primacy. But D.C. isn’t a state, and the Granite State’s top election official has given the District a pass. Iowa’s self-defense law is stricter; the District might have to content itself with being second in the nation, although that’s no small prize.

Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire could try to punish candidates who campaign in the District by voting against them. But that’s an iffy strategy. New Hampshire has so embraced its maverick image that leading candidates now angle to finish a strong second or third there, while a Paul Tsongas or John McCain gets the Yankee-individualist vote. The District has more registered Democrats than New Hampshire does (more Democrats than New Hampshire has Republicans, too), and D.C. residents, in their diversity, may be closer to representing the American electorate. It would be hard for candidates to resist the temptation to go for a big, clean win.

The primary would also tempt the thousands of limbo-dwellers who reside here but vote elsewhere. For years, they’ve been able to sidestep the issue of D.C.’s second-class status; they’ve simply voted for senators and House reps out in the provinces. But with the candidates glad-handing among them, giving the District the Dixville Notch treatment, the half-outsiders would have to choose: miss out on the big, decisive election—or join in and lose the rest of their voting rights? Finally, they, too, would feel the pinch of reduced citizenship. Maybe then they’d be moved to do something about it. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Ullman.