Is it better to leave the legislative process entirely in the hands of the elite or should the public have input? Recently The Washington Examiner reported on the disparity between getting a candidate on the ballot and getting an initiative on the ballot. According to this article, candidates are required to produce less than 4,000 signatures to qualify for ballot entry while initiatives require approximately 23,300 to qualify. These standards are given in the DC election code. The candidate requirement is set at 2,000 signatures (for city wide board members participating in a primary)—limited to the political party of the candidate—or 1% of the political party, whichever is less. If the candidate is not participating in a primary election, then the number of signatures is set at 1.5% of the registered voters or 3,000 signatures, whichever is less. Instead of these set numbers, initiatives require signatures from 5% of registered electors, with this list containing at least 5% of the electors from 5 separate wards.
When we focus on the limitation to political party members for the signatures of city-wide candidates the disparity seems less drastic because the pool of potential signers is much smaller than for initiatives. At least, this would be true if the distribution of political party membership were somewhat equal. This is not the case as the Democratic Party includes 75% of the registered voters in the district while the next largest party, the Republican Party, contains only 6% of the registered voters. This distribution means that Democratic Party candidates need 2,000 signatures, the Republican Party Candidates need 308 signatures, and initiatives need 23,398 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
This is not the only disparity in treatment between referendum petitions and candidate petitions. The difference in signature threshold is not as significant as the difference in signature authentication by the DC Board of Elections and Ethics. The Washington Examiner discussed this disparity as well, though the column makes the disparity seem more extreme than it actually is. Candidate petitions start with a presumption that the petition signatures are valid. If a candidate posts the nominating petition in a public place for 10 days, then the committee may accept the signatures as valid without further inquiry. For initiatives the Board is mandated to validate the petition signatures, in addition to posting the petition in a public place for inspection for 10 days and allowing for challenges from electors.
This Board- mandated signature validation for initiative positions brings a separate problem that has been brought up this election cycle:, the lack of any specified validation procedure. The statute states that signature validation “may be by a bona fide random and statistical sampling method,” though it does not say it must by through this method. The statute neither specifies nor bars any validation methods. Initiative petitions could be subjected to loose or strict validation methods, allowing a large amount of discretion on the part of the Board.
What justifies the stricter guidelines for initiatives? Some might argue that, since Board members, while wielding considerable legislative power within the district, are constrained by the legislative process, it makes sense that referenda, which can enact laws outside of the legislative process, should be held to higher scrutiny. This explanation loses a bit of force as referenda and initiatives may be rejected if the Board determines it is not the proper subject of an initiative or referendum, authorizes discrimination, or would negate or limit an action of the Council. Add to this the ability of the Council to overturn referenda or initiative enactments later, and it seems that referenda and initiatives may a very limited capacity for mischief compared to Council members.
I contacted the DC Board of Elections and Ethics to determine what the rationale was, but I have not received any response as of yet. This may be due to the challenges against the Board and the attention they have brought this year. As of now I can only speculate as to the potential reasons for the differential treatment. Whatever the justifications are, these discrepancies have come under increased scrutiny this year with both a candidate and an initiative measure being denied ballot access because of insufficient signatures. Both denials have led to challenges of the Board’s actions, though the challenges have mostly focused on inconsistencies in how signatures were counted and verified. With increased scrutiny it is possible that these practices will either be changed, or at least more adequately explained.