Standing up for D.C. Democracy

The recent shutdown showed that the District’s elected leaders are willing to take bold action when it comes to defending D.C. democracy. When the federal government closed, they kept the city open by declaring all operations essential and using reserve funds to keep all D.C. employees on the job. This strategy paid off when Congress enacted the city’s local budget for the rest of the fiscal year, even though the risk of another federal shutdown in January still looms.

But on another critical issue of D.C. democracy, we think this admirable District leadership has been missing.

On October 22, Mayor Vincent Gray approved a Council bill that postponed the first Attorney General election from 2014 until at least 2018–even though the Mayor acknowledged regret that this contradicted the overwhelming vote of District residents in the 2010 charter amendment referendum.

The Mayor’s action came after the Council passed the postponement bill by a vote of 7 to 6 on October 1. This vote went against the advice of the current Attorney General–who said it violated the expressed will of the people in the referendum–and also against the advice of the Council’s own General Counsel–who said the Council had no legal authority to override the vote of the people in the referendum.

Delaying the Attorney General Election is a Setback for Democracy

Given the Mayor’s expressed concerns with this bill, and given the strong stance he has always taken in favor of democracy for D.C.–most recently his defense of local budget autonomy–we think he should have vetoed the bill. If this bill stands, it will be a double setback for D.C. democracy: not only will it deny D.C. residents the right to vote for their Attorney General next year, but it will also override a right established by the people themselves though a referendum.

We think this is a terrible outcome both for the people and for the people’s elected leaders. Fortunately, though, it is not too late to fix it and do so in a way that respects the will of the voters and also addresses the concerns of those who wanted to postpone the election.

At this Point, There’s No Reason to Delay the Election

Two justifications were offered for the postponement. One was that the Council had been debating whether changes should be made to the duties of the Attorney General. But that debate is now over, and the Attorney General’s duties have been finalized. So that concern cannot justify a four-year delay in the election.

The other concern was that candidates had not yet emerged for the office. But that was partly because the Council was debating when the election would occur and what the duties of the office should be. All of this can now be definitively put to rest by the Council rescheduling the election for 2014–as the voters determined it should be–and passing new legislation to allow more qualified candidates to run. Here are two simple steps that could now be taken by the Council to accomplish this.

How to Put the Election Back on Track

First, set the first Attorney General election for November 2014. This will give interested candidates plenty of time to come forward, and it will fulfill the people’s expectation to have the election next year. Such an election would function as a special election in which candidates from all parties would be allowed to run, and the top vote-getter would be elected.

Second, let government employees run for the office, provided they take a leave of absence. There are able lawyers in the Office of the Attorney General who would run for the position, but not if they must resign from their jobs. The current Attorney General has recommended this change, and it would be consistent with the laws of the vast majority of states.

We hope the Council moves promptly to pass a bill along these lines and that the Mayor will support it. Such a bill will allow our local leaders to once again stand up for the rights of the voters and put D.C. democracy back on track.

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