Independent Voters Not Allowed to Swap Affiliations

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A decision handed down by the District of Columbia’s Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE) stands in the way of more than 70,000 registered independent voters switching affiliations in order to vote as Democrats in the Sept. 14 primary.

As a result, the board’s mandate has put a damper on Mayor Adrian Fenty’s campaign efforts, which had hoped to win over the extra votes in his hotly contested bid for re-election.

BOEE spokeswoman Alysoun McLaughlin told the AFRO the board’s decision hinged on the fact that prior to this year, voter rolls closed 30 days before the elections. She said that no one who was not already on the rolls was able to register as new, or to change their party registration.

“We did allow voters to change their address on Election Day, but we did not allow them to change their voter registration or register for the first time,” said McLaughlin. “When the City Council passed the Omnibus Election Reform [Act of 2009] the end of last year, they elected to create a system for voters to register for the first time at the polls on Election Day,” she continued, “but they explicitly decided to retain the fact that previously registered voters ‘ party affiliation is locked in.”

The Omnibus Election Reform of 2009 (OERA) became law this past February, and during a markup session the previous fall, At-large Councilman David Catania moved two amendments related to party affiliations.

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Catania was not immediately available for comment, but according to the rule-making petition in which Fenty’s concerns were attached, an amendment was moved that would have allowed voters to change their party affiliation during a 30-day period. Secondly, Catania offered an amendment that would have allowed unaffiliated voters to participate in any political party’s primary election with the group’s consent.

McLaughlin further stated that the Council had opted to maintain the closed primary system in the District and because such was the language used in the Omnibus format. Voters could not change their party affiliations at the last minute in order to vote for a candidate aligned with another party.

In its petition, Fenty’s campaign sought BOEE’s clarification on new legislation that allows voters to register on the day of the primary and that nothing in the city’s election statutes prohibits independent voters from registering with a party during the aforementioned 30-day period.

But following a hearing, the petition was denied.

“There was a petition that was delivered to our office to change that interpretation,” McLaughlin said, “but we didn’t do so. It was repealed and another vote was held by the board to affirm that was in fact the case –that [the Fenty campaign assessment] was not our interpretation of the law.”

According to a recent Gallup Poll, about one in five independent registered voters is undecided or prefers a candidate from outside the two major parties.

The nationwide poll which queried more than 6,000 respondents on a monthly basis, also revealed that since March, an average of 92 percent of Democrats and 94 percent of Republicans have said they would vote for their party's candidate if the election were held today.

Meanwhile, Washingtonians have been mixed in their assessments of the matter.

“I believe it’s a ploy to persuade or con some voters into coming over to the Democratic side just to get the votes,” said Dontike Miller, 26. “And if that’s the case, then that voter would not have been totally committed to their belief in the first place.” Miller added that voters should be required to vote the party they signed on for, and remain committed until after the elections.

Others like Anthony Cambrel, 54, and Cuteva Chambers, 45, reasoned that if voters have a change of mind, they have the right to exercise it.

“If I want to change my mind, I think I should be able to do that,” Cambrel said. “That should be about anything — even if I was Republican and decided at the last minute I wanted to vote as a Democrat. If I haven’t signed anything, I shouldn’t be held as committed.”

Said Chambers: “Last minute or not, I should be able to change the way I want to vote. Otherwise, it’s like [the government] telling me what to do.”

Thomas Jenkins, 66, shared sentiments with Marvin Little.

“I think the board’s decision was a good one because it was a last-ditch act of desperation by Fenty’s people who tried to pull a deed in his favor,” said Jenkins, 66. “Fenty was upset because he appointed Togo West [to BOEE] thinking he would go along with it, but things backfired.”

Little, 74, said while he partially agrees with BOEE, people should still go early and vote. Otherwise, “It can be a tough decision if you’re not sure — so people should stick to their initial choice in these matters.”