Lisa Rice Philip Pannell
Lisa Rice, left, and Philip Pannell file papers to put an elections reform ballot initiative to voters. Credit: Philip Pannell

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In what is becoming a semiannual tradition, another ballot initiative looks set to drive D.C. politicos a bit crazy next year. With the tipped minimum wage dispute seemingly settled, the next controversy seems destined to center on ranked-choice voting and open primaries.

A group of longtime local activists tell Loose Lips that they filed papers Wednesday to start the process of getting the newly dubbed “Make All Votes Count D.C.” initiative on the 2024 general election ballot, aiming to end D.C.’s system of closed primaries and institute ranked-choice voting in all races in time for 2026. Ward 7 advisory neighborhood commissioner Lisa Rice is chairing this new committee backing the initiative, while veteran Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell (a long-standing backer of these electoral reforms) will serve as treasurer. Adam Eidinger, one of the lead organizers behind successful ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana and eliminate the tipped wage system, is also on board.

Much like some of those other ballot measures, the effort is designed to essentially circumvent the D.C. Council and go directly to the voters, particularly on the matter of ranked-choice elections. The idea has gained steam in recent years as a key method to prevent candidates from winning in crowded fields without a majority of the vote, yet legislation on the topic has foundered amid opposition from the city’s Democratic establishment. There’s been considerably less momentum behind changing the District’s closed primary system, which forces pretty much anyone who wants a say in the political process to register as a Democrat, but Rice and Pannell chose to combine the issues in order to generate support among a broad swath of the electorate.

“We want elected officials to be accountable to a majority of voters,” says Rice, who is a registered independent and has also been active in national electoral reforms efforts. “We have people in office right now who were not put there by a majority of us, and it’s past time to change that.”

Rice’s group still has a long way to go to actually get the measure on the ballot (the Board of Elections needs to certify that it meets requirements for an initiative, any critics will get a chance to challenge that ruling, and then the six-month clock starts ticking for proponents to gather enough signatures to bring it to voters). But it could be transformative if it succeeds.

The initiative as currently written would take effect in time for the next mayoral election, which could well be a crowded field if Mayor Muriel Bowser opts against a try at a fourth term, in addition to a slew of Council races. That includes two at-large seats, which have most frequently been targeted as ripe for ranked-choice voting considering the large number of candidates who typically run for them.

The 2020 at-large race, in particular, spurred such calls after Christina Henderson won with 15 percent of the vote, then turned around and introduced ranked-choice legislation to prevent outcomes like that. The Ward 2 primary, where Brooke Pinto squeaked past seven other contenders, elicited similar interest in RCV. Even the normally staid Washington Post editorial board called for the adoption of the practice amid that race.

The problem for would-be reformers is that the D.C. Democratic Party is staunchly opposed to the idea. Three-quarters of the Democratic State Committee voted two years ago to urge the Council to oppose Henderson’s ranked-choice bill—it promptly stalled in committee and has yet to be reintroduced.

“I personally feel very strongly that it is a process to dilute parties,” At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, a longtime Democratic Party leader and a beneficiary of several crowded primaries, opined in a debate last year. She also happens to chair the Council committee with jurisdiction over elections, winning that responsibility as a bit of a concession after she lost the housing committee earlier this year.

Bonds and others within powerful Democratic institutions have also framed the issue as one that might unnecessarily confuse voters. Consider one particularly hyperbolic example of this framing from the DC Women in Politics group, run by longtime politico Anita Bellamy Shelton, as it surveyed its members this spring. In a March poll forwarded to LL, the group asked how highly its backers supported efforts to “prevent rank-choice voting legislation in DC, which would disenfranchise voting segments such as the elderly, cognitive challenged, and low literate populations.”

Voters in plenty of other cities and states manage to decipher this process, of course: Nearby Arlington County just adopted ranked choice for its elections. Former ANC Zach Israel also astutely noted on Twitter that tens of thousands of D.C. parents navigate a ranked-choice system each year through the school lottery.

Opposition from these quarters makes a lot more sense when you consider that ranked choice would uniquely disadvantage entrenched incumbents, such as Bonds, who rely more on name recognition in crowded fields than vigorous campaigning to cruise to victory. Ranked choice should (ideally) encourage candidates to reach out to voters who might rank them second or third as well as first, helping them perform better in subsequent rounds of vote tabulation as the field gets winnowed, and that approach doesn’t exactly favor insiders relying on institutional support to win.

Plus, it makes sense that the party would be hesitant to open these primaries, since it removes a key incentive for voters to register as Democrats—roughly 85,000 people, or close to 16 percent of the electorate, are currently registered as independents and that number would likely grow if the initiative passes. Parties in other states have similarly resisted open primaries over fears that they allow meddling in nominating contests from the opposite party, but that is a considerably smaller consideration in an overwhelmingly Democratic city like D.C.

“These primaries are funded by D.C., so I’m effectively paying for elections where I’m not eligible to vote,” Rice adds.

She predicts that the initiative will be “the beginning of something big” in the District. At the very least, she’s right that this could be the next big fight between the city’s left flank and its moderate establishment.

A coalition of D.C.’s progressive groups was already working on the ranked-choice issue (though organizers say Pannell’s push has moved largely independent of that effort) and they’ve begun to welcome the news of this initiative. But the restaurant industry showed how a determined opponent can frustrate a ballot measure even if it enjoys popular support. There’s every reason to expect such wrangling to define the next few months of D.C. politics.