If the longest-tenured member of the D.C. Council has his way, the city’s 2020 primary election won’t be in June, but earlier in the year.
Councilman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who serves as the D.C. Democratic State Committee’s national committeeman and has been a member of the District’s legislative body since 1991, said during a Jan. 3 committee meeting that the District should move its presidential and council primary from June to possibly April.
“You saw what happened last June — the turnout was horrible,” Evans said, noting that only 18.66 percent of all registered D.C. voters cast ballots in the June 19 primary. “California has moved up their primary date to March and others are looking at doing the same.”
California has the largest share of delegates in the Democratic and Republican presidential process. California has traditionally held its primary in June but Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill in 2017 moving it to March.
The reason for California’s shift had to do with the desire to have more influence in the presidential nomination process. California will join several other states to form a “Super Tuesday” on March 3, 2020.
The electoral calendar for the Democrats has the District holding its presidential primary on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. Evans expressed interest in the District holding its primary on Tuesday, April 28 with other East Coast states such as Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
It has been the tradition in the District for many years that a presidential preference primary takes place in May, January or February during presidential election years while a council primary is held in September. That changed in 2010 when federal law stipulated that overseas citizens and military ballots needed 45 days before a federal election to be sent to the affected parties and, as a result, the District negated its traditional September council primary date.
In 2012, both the presidential and council primaries were held on April 3 and in 2016, the primaries took place on June 14.
Seventy-five percent of all registered voters in the District are Democrats. However, by the time the District presidential primary comes around in June, the Democratic nominee has effectively been decided already.
The D.C. Republican Party traditionally holds its primary as the same time as the Democrats. In 2016, though, it held a presidential caucus in March and had council and D.C. delegate candidates on the ballot in the June primary.
The D.C. Statehood Green Party had a similar situation, with the June 14, 2016, primary having D.C. delegate and council nominations and no presidential candidate on the ballot.
Evans wants the District to have more of an impact on who will be the Democratic nominee, and some residents agree with him.
“I do agree that the primary should be earlier,” said Charles Gaither, a member of the Democratic State Committee. “That might get us some recognition. I remember a few years ago when there was the ‘Potomac Primary,’ where Maryland and Virginia held primaries along with D.C. and it was pretty successful.”
The “Potomac Primary” took place on Feb. 12, 2008, with then-Sens. Barack Obama (D) and John McCain (R) winning. Obama and McCain ran against each other in the historic Nov. 4 general election in which Obama became the first Black president of the United States.
Gaither said an April primary would be a boon for the cause of D.C. statehood, the Democratic presidential candidates having to address the issue in the hunt for votes.
Vicki Wright-Smith, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 1, agreed.
“By the time we vote in our Democratic primary, everything has been settled,” Wright-Smith said. “Everyone knows who the nominee is. Also, local races will get more attention if the primary is held earlier in the year. More people will go out and vote.”
But not all Democrats are on board with an earlier primary.
“No, I don’t support [the] 2020 primary being moved earlier in the year,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “We go through this every four years about D.C. having more influence in the process. To me, that argument is more noise than substance. I would like to see something substantively that proves that.”
Mendelson said the District should go back to September council primaries and that something could be worked out regarding the federal law for overseas and military ballots.
The change in primary dates would have to get through the council and, in the best-case scenario, be supported by the mayor and reviewed by the U.S. Congress.
John Falcicchio, chief of staff for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), said there have been discussions on the matter.
“With the turnout that we had in the June primary, we are open to discussing when the primary should take place,” he said.