D.C.'s cozy election oversight

Saturday, March 12, 2011; 6:38 PM

INTERIM AT-LARGE D.C. Council member Sekou Biddle (D) is trying to kick a Republican opponent off the ballot for the April 26 special election. The process, dominated by Democrats, has not inspired confidence that the decision will be fair and impartial.

At issue are nominating petitions filed by Patrick Mara, a Republican member of the D.C. State Board of Education who is seeking, like Mr. Biddle and several others, to fill out the at-large council term of Kwame R. Brown, who was elected chairman. Mr. Biddle has the support of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and a council majority. His campaign challenged the nominating petitions of Mr. Mara and two other candidates.

On Monday, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics issued a preliminary decision upholding Mr. Mara's petitions. A review by voter registrar Karen F. Brooks determined that of the 5,629 signatures submitted by Mr. Mara, 3,182 were valid, passing the threshold of 3,000 and, it seemed, assuring that his name would be on the ballot. Another hearing was to have been held Thursday, but when Mr. Mara's legal team showed up, it was told the hearing was delayed to Tuesday.

On Friday, the board notified Mr. Mara that its review came across several petition pages that contain "what appear to be signature forgeries." The hearing was rescheduled for Monday. An unscientific look reveals a number of cases in which multiple signatures seem to be written by the same person; the matter merits investigation.

The board's actions raise several troubling questions. Why weren't the anomalies discovered during the preliminary review? Why did the board not inform Mr. Mara's campaign on Thursday of its discovery? How was it that both the Biddle campaign and this page were aware of the charges of possible forgery well before Mr. Mara's campaign was notified? And was there consultation between the board and the Biddle campaign about whether the challenge should be withdrawn? An outgunned Republican Party was given barely a weekend to find people who circulated petitions.

It's disturbing that a totally Democratic body will decide whether a Republican can stand for election. Despite a legal requirement for minority representation on the three-member elections board, which supervises voting, it's been more than a year since the board has had a Republican. The April election will be the third with only Democrats calling the shots. Citizens should watch carefully Monday to see what role that may play in the perpetuation of cozy one-party rule.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company