By Matthew Hanson
The right to choose our elected officials and participate in policy making debates and decisions is fundamental to achieving so many of the other outcomes that we are working towards. While the District of Columbia may not be a state (yet), we have taken important steps in recent years to make our democracy more inclusive.
Our Democracy is Getting More Inclusive
We’ve passed a form of automatic voter registration, the Fair Elections public financing of elections program. And, we’ve restored the vote to people who are currently incarcerated, something no other state has done, and which only two states currently do. These, along with other ideas on the table, will help to ensure our democracy excludes no one, and helps us achieve the results we desire.
94% of Eligible DC Residents Registered to Vote
As of December 2020, there were 527,773 registered voters in the District of Columbia. Between 2014 and 2020, voter registration steadily increased each election cycle. An estimated 94% eligible voters are registered to vote in the District based on the most recent available data. As of 2019, DC’s citizen voting age population was 536,768, when 505,465 residents were registered to vote.
Voter Participation Varies Greatly
Using consumer data provided by Target Smart, matched against the DC voter file, we estimate that 50% of registered DC voters are African American, 31% white, 6% Latinx and the remaining 13% other or unknown. These numbers are within five or six points of the District’s overall population, but do not reflect voter participation rates. Those numbers, while not available by race, are less promising.
Voter participation varies greatly by ward and election cycle, with notable disparities across the District. Participation is higher during presidential election years because the top of the ticket helps drive turnout. Even though more District wide seats are on the ballot during non-presidential election years, turnout drops during those cycles. For more data, visit Voting and Democracy.
In addition to the presidential race, DC voters cast their ballots for two at-large council seats and the ward 2, 4, 7, and 8 council seats are on the ballot during these elections. Between the 2016 and 2020 elections, voter participation increased from 22% to 28% in the primary, and 65% to 67% in the general. In the general election, the difference between the highest turnout ward and lowest turnout ward was 20% in 2020 and 22% in 2016. In the primary, it was 21% in 2020 and 14% in 2018.
During non-presidential elections, DC voters cast their ballots for Mayor, Attorney General, and Council Chair, two at-large council seats and the ward 1, 3, 5, and 6 council seats. Voter participation between the 2014 and 2018 elections decreased from 27% to 19% in the primary, but increased from 38% to 46% in the general, tracking with the Blue Wave other parts of the country experienced. In the general election, the difference between the highest turnout ward and lowest turnout ward was 23.6% in 2018 and 20.5% in 2014. In the primary, it was 15% in 2018 and 20% in 2014.
The two lowest wards with the lowest voter participation in every election since at least 2014 have been wards 7 and 8, the wards with the highest number of Black residents, housing instability and poverty rate.
Major Disparities Continue to Persist
The good news is that we have seen some progress towards higher turnout in recent years, but major disparities continue to persist around who is able to participate. For example, the two lowest wards with the lowest voter participation in every election since at least 2014 have been wards 7 and 8, the wards with the highest number of Black residents, housing instability and poverty rate. While ward 3, the richest and whites ward, has been one of the two highest performing wards and ward 4 has been one of the two highest performing wards in all but two of those same elections.
Vote 16 DC
Finally, while activists, candidates, officials and voters continue to explore how to bring more people into our elections, it’s worth noting the potential impact of one reform that is being considered. Vote 16 DC advocates for lowering the voting age to 16 for all eligible residents. While we don’t have an exact number for the number of young people this would enfranchise, it is likely more than 10,000 residents who would gain the right to vote.
In 2018 there were over 10,500 16 and 17-year-olds in DC. While we don’t have a good way to estimate how many are eligible to vote, 97.9% of DC’s children are US-born or naturalized citizens. If 16 and 17-year-olds have this same rate, that means there are roughly 10,300 16 and 17-year-old US citizens in DC who would be eligible to vote if the DC Council passes vote 16.