December 19, 2013

Mayoral contenders Muriel Bowser, Vincent Orange and Andy Shallal recently delivered to the D.C. Board of Elections a combined 13,000 signatures, beating by several weeks the Jan. 2 deadline to submit petitions to appear on the primary ballot. Theirs was no major feat, however. The District’s nominating process makes puny demands on wannabes.

By law, individuals running for office are required to collect the signatures of 1 percent of registered voters within their parties. For Democratic mayoral candidates, that means only 2,000 signatures, which aren’t even required to be collected citywide. In November, Washington City Paper’s Will Sommer noted that a candidate for the Libertarian Party, which has 145 members in the District, needed two — that’s right, two — signatures to run for mayor.

Don’t you love a farce?

That low bar helps cast D.C. elections essentially as a cattle call, where anyone with a pulse and a local address can secure a place on a primary ballot. Sure, some candidates collect more than the required signatures. That’s voluntary, however, and they do it mostly to inoculate themselves against challenges from their opponents or others.

Unquestionably, the process cries out for reform. Don’t expect elections board Director Clifford Tatum to make any recommendations, however. He told me his office deals only with “administrative issues.” The candidate-nominating process is “politics and has always been established by the [D.C.] Council.”

Help in upgrading the current standard will not come from existing or even budding politicians, either. “I think it’s a fairly high threshold,” Shallal told me recently. “It’s not as easy as you think.”

There is ample evidence of the mischief wrought by such a negligible requirement. Consider 2010, for example: When Sulaimon Brown submitted his signatures to get on the mayoral primary ballot, no one really paid much attention. Yet, he went on to play an outsize role in the race, recasting and disrupting the democratic process. He repeatedly attacked incumbent Adrian Fenty at candidate forums, spewing negative comments. No insult was left unused. What people didn’t know was that Brown was a tool of Vincent Gray’s campaign. According to federal officials, Brown received cash payments from that 2010 election operation, and the financial support extended Brown’s political shelf life. But when the ballots were counted, he had only 209 of the 133,854 votes cast.

What would have happened if the nominating bar had been higher? More important, is there a Sulaimon Brown in this year’s primary race?

The nomination procedure stands in stark contrast to the high hurdle demanded of residents and others seeking to get an initiative or referendum before voters.

These individuals must first make their case before the elections board for its approval. Then, they are made to secure “at least five percent of the voters registered citywide. These signatures must be distributed to reflect at least five percent of the registered voters in at least five of the eight wards,” according to the elections board. Last year, a group of residents, calling themselves D.C. Public Trust, sought to get an initiative before voters that would have banned corporate contributions in political campaigns. They were required to secure the signatures of more than 23,000 registered voters.

The gander gets clobbered while the goose gets a pass.

Even when residents have met the unreasonably high barrier for initiatives and referendums, the council has stepped in the way of implementing such voter-approved measures. Several years ago, the legislature nullified an initiative that required term limits for all elected officials. This year, it voted to delay the election of an independent attorney general.

The need to reform the candidate-nominating process becomes even more critical when viewed against this backdrop: Individuals win office in the District with a simple plurality. No runoff is required. A mayoral candidate could win the upcoming Democratic primary with as little as 25 percent of the vote. It’s ridiculous that someone could become the chief executive of a $12 billion governmentwith such piddling support.

Recently, D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) announced that he intends to introduce election reform legislation. He said he wants the District to have open primaries. Further, he thinks elections should include “instant runoffs.” Hopefully, he will include in that agenda changing the nomination requirements for individuals running for office, helping to eliminate some of the political riffraff that makes it on the election ballot.

I know what you’re thinking: She’s dreaming if she thinks any of that will pass the Democratic Party-dominated city council. Hope springs eternal.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com