D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. has proposed a series of changes to city election laws that could aid some of the biggest donors to his mayoral exploratory committee and discourage some of his council colleagues from mounting their own bids for mayor in 2006.
Among the changes, aired yesterday during a day-long hearing, is a proposal to relax requirements for petition circulators and make it easier to place an initiative on the D.C. ballot. Had it been in effect last summer, it could have prevented election officials from rejecting an initiative to legalize slot machines, according to testimony from election officials and slots opponents. Slots supporters have contributed nearly $20,000 to Orange's exploratory committee.
Vincent Orange wants to change election law.
Another proposal would require council members who run for mayor to resign from their seats even if they lose the race. That provision could affect potential mayoral contenders such as Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who just won reelection to four-year terms. But it would not affect Orange (D-Ward 5), who must choose between running for mayor or running for reelection next year.
Orange, who chairs the council committee that oversees city election laws, also has submitted a complicated proposal that, for the first time, would require exploratory committees to file reports with campaign finance officials and limit contributions to no more than $2,000. Currently, exploratory committees may accept unlimited contributions and not disclose donors.
Orange has said repeatedly that he is offering the bill in response to public concerns about a sudden flood of unregulated dollars into his mayoral exploratory committee and those of three other potential candidates. Yesterday, he said if council members want to regulate the exploratory process, they also should be willing to reexamine other areas of election law.
"I am uncomfortable dealing with an exploratory law when in fact I'm already exploring," Orange said. "But since we've opened this door to talk about election laws, let's put everything on the table . . . and not just focus on things that are germane to [other council members'] political interests."
Orange defended his legislation, saying the proposals address broad problems and are not aimed at benefiting particular donors or harming political opponents. The resign-to-run bill, for instance, would protect the interests of District voters by forcing their representatives to focus on the job at hand, not the next career move down the line, he said.
"Look at Fenty," Orange said. "On Jan. 2 he was sworn into office [on the council], and on Jan. 8 he had a [mayoral] exploratory committee function. You have to wonder, does he really want to serve that term?"
As for changes to the initiative process, Orange said he is trying to protect the "duly registered voter" who signs a petition in support of putting a measure on the ballot but whose will is frustrated because the petition circulator has committed an infraction. In the case of the slots initiative, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics threw out thousands of signatures that may have been valid because the board found evidence of widespread fraud and forgery among petition circulators.
"All the emphasis on the circulator could be interpreted as some type of restrictive requirement preventing voters from having their say," Orange said.
Under his proposal, the elections board would be required to tally the signatures of registered D.C. voters even if the petition circulator did not personally witness every signature or was not a D.C. resident of voting age.
"You could have a nonresident minor circulating petitions," said Kenneth J. McGhie, general counsel to the elections board. "His position is, 'Well, that shouldn't matter.' But I kind of disagree with that."
Orange has not scheduled a committee vote on the bills, though he vowed yesterday to move them to the full council before its summer break.
Orange acknowledged that some of the most controversial measures are unlikely to survive a vote in his committee. Its members include Fenty, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who has offered a simpler proposal for regulating the exploratory committees.