D.C. corporate donations ban won’t be on November ballot

September 4, 2012

A proposed initiative to ban corporate donations in the District will not be on the November ballot, but a Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that proponents can take the next month to review their submission to try to qualify for a future election.

Angered by a spate of ethical controversies in city government, dozens of activists worked for months to gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters. But the Board of Elections ruled this month that the activists, known as D.C. Public Trust, fell short of collecting the necessary 23,298 signatures from registered voters.

Activists are challenging the ruling, but they acknowledged in court Tuesday that they are unable to prove their case in time for the November ballot. Instead, Judge Laura A. Cordero granted the group’s request to keep working on its appeal until Oct. 2.

“We are going to go through line by line and look at every voter,” said Bryan Weaver, a former D.C. Council candidate and lead organizer of D.C. Public Trust.

The ruling means the group can review the election board’s findings but cannot gather additional signatures. If it successfully uncovers significant errors by the board, the question would likely qualify for the ballot next year.

The election board is expected to call a special election in the spring to fill the seat of council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who fellow members selected to lead the council after Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) stepped down. Mendelson is expected to be elected chairman in November.

But Ken McGhie, general counsel for the election board, said he is confident that the board’s decision will stand. McGhie said the activists face a daunting task to try to uncover signatures that were improperly tossed out by the board.

“We’ve gone through it, staff has gone through it several more times after we did our initial report,” McGhie said. “We don’t see it.”

In July, the group turned in more than 30,000 signatures, which organizers assumed would be more than enough to meet the required equivalent of 5 percent of registered voters. But an election board review concluded that more than 7,000 signatures were duplicates, came from non-registered voters or contained inaccurate names or addresses.

The activists went to court late last month arguing that the board miscounted the signatures. The board responded by saying the activists simply did not understand counting notation systems.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the activists said additional time would give them the opportunity to obtain the data for a thorough review.

“Really, the only way we would be able to do it is if we have access to the Board of Elections’ computer system,” Weaver said after the hearing. “Otherwise, we are just flying blind.”

Before making her ruling, Cordero expressed annoyance with both parties, saying she was disturbed that they did not try to resolve their differences sooner.

“I would urge you to sit down and try to work this out before you race back into court,” she said. “Just talk about it.”

If the group can’t identify enough valid signatures by October, they would have to start all over again, likely pushing off a public vote on the matter until at least 2014.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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