Council member Phil Mendelson decided he'd heard enough after petition collectors testified last summer that they had copied listings from the telephone book for $1 per name.
So last week, Mendelson (D-At Large) introduced legislation to make it illegal for anyone circulating petitions to get paid per signature or per petition sheet. Instead, the collectors should only be paid per hour or per day's work, he said.
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"Our election process has been tarnished by fraud," Mendelson said. "We need to put an end to that. It's an embarrassment to have thousands and thousands of forged signatures."
But a critic of the city's election laws, Gary Imhoff, said that although the proposal is a step in the right direction, Mendelson's bill likely is not comprehensive enough to deal with all the problems that have surfaced during the recent petition scandals.
The current law requires a specific number of registered D.C. voters to sign petitions to get an initiative, a referendum or a candidate on the ballot or to recall an elected official. The number varies from issue to issue.
In the past, some candidates and supporters of the initiatives and referendums have paid petition circulators from 50 cents to $3 per name. Some circulators testified before the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics in July that the proponents of a referendum on legalizing slot machines in the District wouldn't pay them unless they met a quota of registered voters' signatures.
It was the second time since 2002 that the city's election process has been tarnished by fraud and forged signatures.
Two years ago, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), then a candidate for reelection, ran as a write-in candidate in the primary after the elections board decided that he did not have 2,000 valid signatures to qualify for a spot on the ballot. His circulators turned in 10,240 names, but too many of the signatures were collected improperly or forged, the elections board ruled.
This summer, slots supporters collected more than 56,000 signatures in support of a plan to install 3,500 slot machines in a gambling hall at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. But they failed to prove that they had the valid signatures of 17,599 registered D.C. voters that were required to put the initiative on the ballot.
"We've had two major scandals," Mendelson said. "If campaigns have to pay on an hourly or per diem basis, the kind of fraud we've seen will go away."
Mendelson's bill, which would amend the city's 1955 election code, would call for fines of up to $10,000 and up to a year in jail for individuals convicted of compensating circulators per signature or per petition sheet.
None of the council's other 12 members co-sponsored the bill. It was referred to the council's Committee on Government Operations for review.
Dorothy Brizill, who challenged both the mayor's reelection petitions in 2002 and the slots initiative this year, urged the city to review its election laws after the general election.
"We don't have to go out and reinvent the wheel," Brizill said. "We just have to look at how other jurisdictions are doing it."