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September To April And Back? The Saga Of D.C.'s Primary Date Continues

D.C.'s local primary date was changed from September to April, and may soon be switched back.
Justin Grimes: http://www.flickr.com/photos/notbrucelee/5139407571/
D.C.'s local primary date was changed from September to April, and may soon be switched back.

D.C. could soon return to a September primary date for local elections, abandoning a brief and controversial experiment with holding the primaries in April.

Under a bill set to be considered by the D.C. Council on Tuesday, the city's primary election would be moved to the first Tuesday in September, effectively reversing a 2011 bill that pushed the primary date to the first Tuesday in April.

That bill was passed to put D.C. in compliance with a federal law requiring 45 days between a primary and general election, to better allow military and overseas voters that chance to cast absentee ballots. It also aligned the city's presidential and local primaries, which prior to 2012 had been held on different dates.

But legislators, candidates and voters seemed to have had a hard time adjusting to the new electoral calendar, which required candidates to campaign in wintry weather and left incumbents who failed to win re-election a nine-month-long lame duck period. It also seemed to depress turnout; the April 1 D.C. primary saw less than 27 percent of registered voters actually cast ballots, a historic low for the city's mayoral primaries.

"Given the District's unique position of having no voting members of the House of Representatives or Senate, District-wide elections have a deep impact on the lives of D.C. residents. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to maintain an electoral process that meets the needs and desires of the District's residents while maintaining accessibility for military and overseas voters," said a report from the Council's Committee on Government Operations, which last week approved the measure.

When it was first introduced in May 2013, the bill proposed moving local primaries to June, though election officials expressed concern that voting would come too close to the end of the school year. Almost half of D.C.'s polling places are in schools.

Instead, the amended bill would require that the presidential primary take place on the first Tuesday in June, while the city's local primaries would be moved to the first Tuesday in September. (Prior to 2012, the primary was held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in September.)

It would also change how the city takes in absentee ballots. Currently, absentee ballots can be received by the second Friday after the election, provided they are postmarked on Election Day. Under the bill, though, the ballots would be due by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

The bill would also decrease the number of early voting center to four, down from the eight used this year.

While most city officials and legislators have backed changing the primary date, some have still raised concerns. Last week, Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) said that the proposed September primary date would require the city to hold the election on the Tuesday immediately following the Labor Day weekend.

And while Clifford Tatum, the director of the D.C. Board of Elections, said in testimony that he "wholeheartedly supports" the change, he also admitted that the constant changes could lead to further voter confusion.

"Of equal importance is the fact that constantly changing the primary election date does not allow District voters to grow accustomed to a voting schedule, and may have the unfortunate consequences of voter confusion, apathy, and lower voter turnout," he said.

The bill faces two votes this month.

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