On July 1, Lisa D.T. Rice, proposer of Initiative 83, and other members of Make All Votes Count DC converged on D.C. Board of Elections headquarters in Southeast with more than 40,000 signatures. (Sam P.K. Collins/The Washington Informer)

The movement for ranked-choice voting and open primaries reached new heights with the collection — and delivery — of tens of thousands of signatures in support of . 

On July 1, dozens of people representing converged on D.C. Board of Elections (DCBOE) headquarters in Southeast with six black boxes sitting atop a red wagon. Those boxes, Make All Votes Count DC members said, had 8,528 petitions with more than 40,000 signatures from voters representing all eight wards of the District. 

“This is a historic moment. I’m really excited that we were able to gain momentum from all eight wards and hit a threshold,” said Lisa D.T. Rice, a Ward 7 resident and proposer of Initiative 83. “People from all across the city want to make this type of positive change.”

On June 4, which was primary election day in D.C., Rice spent much of her time at the polls reminding voters, party identification notwithstanding, that non-party voters couldn’t participate in local contests that, to some degree, would determine the District’s new leadership. She said that attracting a broad base of support over the last six months required she and her comrades to, in part, address concerns that ranked-choice voting and open primaries disadvantaged Black District residents. 

Days after the primary election, Wendell Felder clinched the Democratic nomination for the Ward 7 D.C. Council seat with less than 25% of the votes collected, and less than 26% of the electorate having participated in the process. Similarly, in Ward 8, D.C. Councilmember Trayon White won re-election in a contest where less than 20% of registered voters cast their ballot.  

Though she didn’t speak in support or against Felder, Rice, an advisory neighborhood commissioner representing Single-Member District 7B07, said that the crowded field in the Ward 7 D.C. Council race highlighted the need for ranked-choice voting. 

“Candidates would learn a new way of campaigning: talking to more people,” Rice said. “I think more people would be motivated to come out if they didn’t think they were wasting their vote or someone being a spoiler. More people would be excited.”

The Debate about How to Increase Voter Participation 

Between July 1 and July 4, DCBOE will prepare an initial count of the signatures submitted to determine whether petitioners collected signatures from 5% of the total number of registered voters in the District and met other preliminary requirements. 

Acceptance of the petition kicks off a 30-day verification process and a 10-day challenge period during which any registered D.C. voter can question the validity of signatures collected. 

If voters approve Initiative 83 during the general election in November, 50% of the vote becomes the new threshold of victory in electoral contests with three or more people. Non-party voters — one out of six registered D.C. voters — will also be able to vote in primary elections for the first time since Home Rule. 

Nearly 30 states have that uses ranked-choice voting. Over the last 20 years, have used that voting system. As of February, 15 states — including Georgia and Wisconsin — in which voters choose a party ballot instead of receiving one based on their registration. 

Ranked-choice voting, also known as the instant run-off, allows voters to rank candidates in the order of preference, with their most preferred candidate going first. From that point, all first votes are counted with the candidate to accumulate 50% being declared the winner.  

If no one secures 50% of the vote,  the race goes into the second round and the candidate who clinched the fewest first votes gets eliminated. All the voters who ranked that candidate first have their next highest ranking candidate counted for the next round. 

The process repeats itself until one candidate secures 50% of the vote. 

Phil Pannell, a Ward 8 community leader and Initiative 83 supporter, said the process would be like any other where people list their preferences. Pannell told The Informer that, in his capacity as treasurer of Make All Votes Count DC, he pushed back against what he called a D.C. Democratic Party-engineered assertion that ranked-choice voting would confuse voters living east of the Anacostia River. 

“People rank their choices all the time, like parents who go through the school lottery or when people apply to public housing, “ Pannell said. “Establishment Democratic Party activists are…not open to change and that’s unfortunate because our Democratic Party leaders are not advancing election reforms.”

He emphasized the need for change is seen at the polls.

“Things are not getting better as we saw in the primary election results last month,” Pannell told The Informer. “There are reasons why people are not coming out.” 

Last year, the D.C. Democratic Party released a statement in opposition of ranked-choice voting and open primaries, saying that both would undermine the party’s power in the District and further exacerbate low voter turnout. 

Charles Wilson, chair of the D.C. Democratic Party would later tell The Informer that ranked-choice voting doesn’t get to the heart of why Ward 7 and 8 voters don’t come out to the polls at the same rate as their more affluent counterparts. 

He cited undervoting and overvoting  — situations where voters choose fewer or more candidates than allowed on an at-large D.C. Council ballot — as a foreshadowing of the difficulties that lie ahead for voters in the new system. 

That’s why, for Wilson, voter education serves as the more viable response to low turnout. During the election season, the D.C. Democratic Party conducted candidates forums. The organization also hosts monthly voter engagement sessions and livestreams events, all part of what Wilson calls an effort to increase participation among voters who are on the periphery of the local political scene. 

“Voters just want to know if their government is going to look out for their best interests [and] there are people who don’t think government does that,” Wilson said. “They don’t see the change in their quality of life and feel left out.” 

A Question of Who the Movement Represents  

As Ward 8 resident Patrice Lancaster continues to mull over the impact of ranked-choice voting, she said she increasingly feels convinced that it would decimate Black voting power in communities east of the Anacostia River. 

She calls Initiative 83 one the newest tricks that white progressives are using to amass influence across the District. 

“Because they don’t have the relationships east of the Anacostia River, they need to reform the Democratic process to get more candidates that they like on the ballot,” Lancaster said. “We can’t stop believing in people’s dignity and ability to make their own decisions.” 

Lancaster, a community organizer and youth advocate, recounted seeing postings from community members in the Ward 8 online forum who tied Ward 8 Councilmember White’s recent electoral victory to voters’ lack of political knowledge. She said that such a viewpoint insults Black residents and disregards their insistence on forming personal relationships with their leaders. 

“People don’t see themselves benefitting from spending time and energy being involved in the electoral process,”Lancaster said. “The onus is on the politicians to get policies and agenda that would involve people who are not showing up.” 

Markus Batchelor, a ranked-choice voting advocate and a lifelong Ward 8 resident, acknowledged the anxiety among Black, working-class District residents about the possibility of an electoral system changing.   

While he didn’t call ranked-choice voting the end all, be all to boosting voter turnout, Batchelor called it one of several voting reforms proposed over the years that’s intended to expand access to the ballot and ensure that elected officials truly reflect the masses of voters. 

“It’s an unfortunate and well-known fact that candidates don’t have to campaign in certain areas, “ Bachelor said. “Incumbents know that they don’t have to seek a broad mandate from voters. That’s the present problem that ranked-choice voting is trying to solve. Even if you don’t agree with the method, it’s true there are structural barriers to poor and working-class people having an equitable voice and power in the electoral process and governance.” 

If approved by D.C. voters in November, ranked-choice voting and open primaries will join mail-in ballots and public campaign finance as mechanisms that came into fruition due to the work of organizers. 

In 2021, Batchelor, a former D.C.. Council at-large candidate, joined other at-large candidates in their support of the VOICE Amendment Act, legislation that D.C. Councilmember Christina Henderson (I-At large) introduced to implement ranked-choice voting. While fervor for ranked-choice voting has since grown, Bachelor maintains that the movement remains in the grassroots. 

“I wouldn’t discount the local efforts that went into this,” Bachelor said. “As a native Black Washingtonian, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of ranked-choice voting. There are people like me who are part of this effort. There’s a broad coalition that involves Black, working class people.” 

Between Jan. 10 and June 24, more than 170 petition and paid signature collectors scoured the District for signatures in support of Initiative 83. Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, a public housing resident and community organizer, counted among those who engaged voters throughout the District — including in Georgetown, Mt. Pleasant, and neighborhood east of the Anacostia River. 

She said that she made a startling discovery while out and about. 

“I was surprised about how many public housing residents were non-party voters,” Vann-Ghasri said. “A lot of young people were saying it’s a threat if people don’t know how 70,000 voters would vote as Republican or Democrat. They said these voters could swing the vote.” 

Vann-Ghasri made another realization she considered just as important for those involved in grassroots organizing. 

She recounted seeing immense support for Initiative 83 among D.C. residents who recently moved from jurisdictions that already have the voting system in place. Some of those people, she told The Informer, would later become part of Make All Votes Count DC senior leadership and rank-and-file membership. 

As she explained, their political know-how, along with Pannell’s grassroots organizing experience,   provided Rice with the foundation needed to propel the fight for ranked-choice voting and open primaries.  

“Lisa Rice had a dream,” Vann-Ghasri said. “When she tried to sell that dream to Ward 7, no one bought it so she went outside the box. Most of the people working in the campaign weren’t from here. That was the core of this movement. It had all races, and there was respect for everyone.”

Sam P.K. Collins has nearly 20 years of journalism experience, a significant portion of which he gained at The Washington Informer. On any given day, he can be found piecing together a story, conducting...

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