Opinion: D.C. Council practices 'pick and choose' democracy with plans to overturn Initiative 77
The voters made their decision about raising the tipped wage. So why won’t the City Council respect them?
On June 19, Washington residents voted in the city’s primary elections for several municipal positions, ranging from the mayoral election and city council memberships to the election of the attorney general. Voters also decided on the implementation of Initiative 77, which eliminates the “tipped minimum wage” in the district. Currently at $3.89 per hour plus tips, the initiative would catalyze a plan to raise the minimum wage for all tipped positions to $15 per hour by 2025.
Primary voters passed the initiative with 55 percent in favor of the decision, with 18.66 percent of the total registered voting population casting ballots. However, due to “low voter turnout” in the primary, seven D.C. Council members currently support an effort to overturn Initiative 77, which will be decided upon this fall.
Although council members argue that decisions on overturning initiatives are analyzed on a case by case basis, it seems important to address how the concept of low voter turnout is implemented as a tool against legislation that was supported by the district’s electorate.
Out of the past nine primary elections in Washington between 2000 and 2018, the 2000, 2008 and 2012 primaries all saw lower voter turnout percentages than the 2018 election. The primaries in 2016 and 2004 both had percentages that were roughly three points higher than the 2018 primary, at 21.76 percent and 21.44 percent respectively.
That means in the past 18 years, only three primary elections had a votes cast to registered voting population ratio that was significantly higher than the 2018 primary in June. As pointed out by The Washington Post’s Fenit Nirappil, this was the lowest turnout for a mayoral primary in three decades, but in most discussions about the initiative, that part seems to be ignored in favor of the “low voter turnout” badge of shame.
But how could the election possibly have created a desire to participate when almost every single position that wasn’t entirely uncontested was dominated by an incumbent that was almost certain to win?
In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, Tom Mack posed the same question that I thought while seeing the council immediately begin discussing the repeal of Initiative 77 after the primary: “If D.C. Council members feel that the low-percentage voter turnout did not accurately reflect the will of the people, what threshold would they find acceptable?”
This map, created by The Atlantic’s CityLab, outlines the clear socioeconomic distinction in the votes for and against Initiative 77, with poorer and more diverse neighborhoods voting overwhelmingly in favor the legislation. Furthermore, the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI) argues that a tipped wage increase would largely benefit low-income demographic groups in the district, especially Hispanic and African-American women.
In particular, EPI states: “Forcing service workers to rely on tips for their wages creates tremendous instability in income flows, making it more difficult to budget or absorb financial shocks.”
Why is it that the D.C. Council wants to debate the economic feasibility of a measure that could drastically improve the lives of district citizens, but chose not to discuss the validity of the overwhelmingly incumbent saturated primary election?
If the D.C. Council’s style of democracy is to pick and choose which initiatives to approve depending on what is best for itself rather than its constituents, it would appear that their mission statement to “provide strong, innovative and effective leadership for the benefit of residents across the city” needs to be revised.
In the wake of the council’s desire to ignore its constituents’ voices, it’s time for AU students to step up for workers’ rights. American University has just been rated as having the “most politically active students” in the U.S. by the Princeton Review. If we want this to really mean something, AU students should take advantage of our unique opportunity as members of a vibrant city to enact change at the local level.
American University is located in Ward 3, the only ward that voted against Initiative 77. However, our councilmember, Mary Cheh, is also the only D.C. councilmember who has come out in support of the legislation. If you live at or around American University’s campus, it is likely that she is your council member; if you live off campus, you can consult this link to find out who your council member is, and how to get in touch with them to share your opinion.
On Sept. 17, the D.C. City Council will hold a public hearing, set to begin at 11 a.m., to discuss the repeal of Initiative 77. The details for how to submit a public comment at the hearing or share your opinion online can be found here.
We are members of the Washington community, and we have a right to participate in and revitalize its political system from the ground up. The marches and rallies that affect policy at the national level are just one aspect of the political scene here in Washington, and we have the opportunity to demand change from the stagnant and distant local politicians who use their own inability to muster support for the initiative as leverage to take away the benefits that citizens voted for.
Braeden Waddell is a sophomore in the School of Communications. He is a columnist for The Eagle.