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Poll: Some Voters Find D.C.'s Closed Primary System Unfair

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D.C.'s closed primary system may be leaving independent voters out of the process. 
Nate Shepard: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nshepard/295899135/
D.C.'s closed primary system may be leaving independent voters out of the process. 

It was seen as a last-minute gambit during the 2010 mayor's race. The campaign of then D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty petitioned the elections board to let more than 70,000 independent voters participate in the September primary. The board rejected the request, citing D.C.'s long history of closed primaries, and Fenty later lost to D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. 

But many District voters surveyed in a recent poll say the city's closed primary system is unfair because it shuts independent voters out of the process. According to results of a poll commissioned by the Washington City Paper and WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show, 44 percent of those surveyed find the system unfair while 38 percent say it makes sense. 

The District and 17 states follow a closed primary system, which only allows voters registered with a given party to vote in that party's primary. 

But D.C. is also a decidedly one-party town, with 75 percent of voters being registered Democrats, so it's usually the primary — and not the general election — that determines the winner. 

Critics say D.C.'s closed primary system shuts out a sizable amount of voters from the process, and fosters an environment that favors entrenched incumbents and discourages new people from getting involved. 

Appearing on the Kojo Nnamdi Show's Politics Hour earlier this month, Council member Jack Evans — a likely mayoral candidate — was asked about the connection between the scandals at city hall, D.C.'s one-party dominance, and whether open primaries make any sense.

"I don't now that that's the problem … when you talk about scandals, I mean, everybody else to the last three governors of Illinois are all in jail ... I mean, scandals are endemic in these governments," Evans said. "It's unfortunate, but they are. But I don't think our government is any worse or any better than governments around the country. And I don't know that … changing the rules is going to bring you more honest politicians."

The poll, which surveyed over 1,222 voters from October 12-14, found that independents, Republicans, and other non-Democrats overwhelmingly disagree with D.C.'s closed primary system.

But 40 percent of Democrats polled also believe the system is unfair, compared to 43 percent of Democrats who think it makes sense. The margin of error for the poll is 2.8 percent. 


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