On April 1, the citizens of Washington, D.C. elected Muriel Bowser as the Democratic primary candidate for this fall’s mayoral race. Bowser, D.C. Council representative of Ward 4, defeated a large pool of candidates, including incumbent Vincent Gray. But the election also saw the lowest voter turnout since the D.C. Board of Elections began collecting data in 1974—only 26.9 percent of the 369,037 registered Democratic voters cast their ballots. Although weather and scheduling bear some responsibility, the low turnout demonstrates a dangerous apathy among D.C. voters that bodes ill for both future elections and the political health of the District.
Granted, the low turnout can be partially attributed to externalities. The mayoral primary has been held in September since 1973, but the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which aimed to increase the participation of active-duty military service members, shifted the primary to April. This switch resulted in a host of unforeseen difficulties—most notably, the weather. The April primary coincided with one of the harshest winters in recent history. According to the Washington Times, one-third fewer early voters turned out compared to the 2010 elections. Snowstorms during voter mobilization efforts limited the proliferation of information regarding the election, which likely impeded voter turnout.
But the main reason for the low turnout is also the most dangerous: a jadedness among D.C. voters about the returns of their political participation. As reported by the Washington Post, not only did Bowser win with fewer votes than a losing candidate received last year, but public dissatisfaction with the corruption, fraud, and scandal-wracked Gray administration caused Gray to lose over 28,000 supporters among working and middle-class as well as African American voters. These numbers illustrate a creeping public cynicism with ineffective leadership that imperils the District’s political future. This disappointment has been attributed to District youth. Although candidates announced their determination to appeal to the youth vote, apathy among younger constituents unequivocally contributed to the diminished number of voters.
Solutions to this problem are few and far between. Although they had a demonstrable effect, the real issue is neither the timing of the election nor the weather. In a nation where voter turnout is routinely underwhelming, voter apathy represents a persistent and pernicious issue that can only be rehabilitated through inspired confidence in upstanding political leaders. Bowser would do well to remember this lesson of the primary as the mayoral election approaches.