A runoff system would improve the District’s democratic process

By The Washington Post Editorial Board

Published: March 27

AMONG THE calculations some District voters are weighing in advance of Tuesday’s Democratic primary is whether to bypass the person they most want elected in favor of a candidate whom they think might have a better chance of winning. Underscoring that dilemma is an expected low voter turnout and a large field of candidates that could produce a winner with a meager plurality. Not exactly the best recipe for democracy.

That is why there is much merit to a package of reforms being championed by D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) that would overhaul how elections are held in the District. Legislation introduced this month by Mr. Grosso would solve the problem of candidates winning without a majority of votes. He favors an instant-runoff system that casts and tabulates votes by ranked choice. He also would allow registered voters to change their party affiliation all the way through Election Day, which could increase turnout.

The current primary system effectively disenfranchises a swath of District voters who don’t identify with a political party. The number is growing, with an estimated 76,000 voters — some 17 percent of the city electorate — registered as independents. Removing the barriers to their participation in the democratic process would be a healthy move. So would ensuring that people elected to public office have a mandate from a majority of voters.

None of these changes would take place in time for this year’s elections. The legislation — along with a third measure that would require candidates to show they or their previous campaign committee have no outstanding fines or other debts to the city — has been referred to committee. Their prospects are uncertain, since it’s hard to focus interest on election reform once an election is past. That, though, is exactly when the changes must be enacted so as not to change the rules midstream, during a pending contest.

A more serious hurdle is likely that the people who need to enact these measures are the ones most liable to see their self-interests hurt, because current election methods favor and protect incumbency. We would urge them to follow the lead of Mr. Grosso. He understands that if the new rules are in place in 2016, as he hopes, he might be standing for reelection in a more competitive field and having to appeal to more voters. But he told us the purpose of being on the council shouldn’t be about protecting one’s seat but rather “trying to do things better in the long run.” Let’s see which of his colleagues agree.