Barras: D.C. ballot qualification process should be changed

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

The DC Board of Elections uses two different processes for handling ballot qualifying petitions. Both unduly burden citizens, forcing them to use their resources to challenge decisions, including filing lawsuits in D.C. Superior Court.

The system cries out for reform.

Consider, for example, two recent cases: a challenge to Councilman Michael Brown's petitions and the BOE ruling against Initiative 70, which would ban corporate contributions to political committees.

As has been their practice for years, Gary Imhoff and Dorothy Brizill, founders of DC Watch, a government watchdog organization, recently reviewed select ballot petitions submitted to the BOE, including those filed by Brown, who is running for re-election. They subsequently lodged a formal challenge to his petitions and a complaint.

"We do not have a horse in this race," Brizill told me. "But we could not turn a blind eye to blatant violations of elections laws."

In an Aug. 20 letter to BOE Chairwoman Deborah Nichols, Brizill and Imhoff said Brown's petitions revealed a "prevalent pattern of forgery" along with incorrect addresses, "deliberate illegible handwriting," circulating irregularities and other problems.

Interestingly, the BOE never reviewed or flagged specific signatures on Brown's petitions. Legally, it's only required to count them -- forget about fake names or phony addresses.

"It's an awesome responsibility to place on citizens -- to have [them] review page after page and to say 'do it in 10 days,' " continued Brizill.

Why should such an important verification be left solely to citizens?

By contrast, the BOE is legally required to authenticate each signature submitted for any initiative or referendum.

When the D.C. Public Trust filed 30,000 signatures in support of Initiative 70, the BOE checked each name. It later ruled only 21,572 signatures were valid -- 1,719 short of the required 23,298.

Bryan Weaver, a Trust leader, said the BOE "miscounted." The group had 24,645 valid signatures. Some were discounted because of incorrect addresses. Oddly, a candidate faced with a similar problem can secure an address change form from the voter and return it to the BOE; initiative proponents don't have the same opportunity.

Adding insult to injury, the Trust was forced to pay $205 to review the board's report on signatures and secure a copy of the voter roll.

"What we found in our review raises serious concerns about the integrity of the democratic process in local D.C. elections," said Weaver. Legally, the group's only "remedy" was to file a lawsuit, costing it more money.

Citing the litigation, Kenneth McGhee, the BOE's general counsel, declined to comment.

Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, who has oversight of the BOE, said she was concerned that the legal challenge period for Initiative 70 technically expired before the board completed its 30-day review. She also expressed concerned over the spread between the BOE's and the Trust's signature tallies.

"We want to ensure the integrity of the process and that everything was done accordingly and correctly," added Bowser.

New legislation is the only solution to current inequities, burdens to citizens and the adverse effect on democracy.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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