The top lawyer for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics said yesterday that a flaw in the wording of the city's voter-backed statehood initiative now requires that a second citywide vote be held this November, once again asking voters whether they want to convene a convention to draft a state constitution.
The current wording in the initiative as passed last Nov. 4 calls for an election to be held after the March 10 "effective date of this initiative". That election would be to decide again whether to hold a statehood convention -- which is what voters believed they were voting on in November.
William Lewis, general counsel to the elections board, said the wording flaw could be corrected without a second vote on the measure either through court action or by a vote of the city council to strike that clause. Supporters of the statehood measure said they prefer either of those two alternatives, rather than face a second, costly election before a larger and potentially less receptive group of voters.
Lewis said that because of the flaw in wording he will recommend to the elections board that the initiative again be put before District of Columbia voters. At the same time, Lewis said, he will recommend that voters be asked to elect delegates to the statehood convention under the assumption that voters once again will approve the initiative.
Statehood advocates were hoping that the council could quietly alter the initiative. But already, opponents of the statehood measure are pushing hard for the second election, seeing a second chance to derail the initiative that won with about 60 percent of the vote.
Ruth Dixon, president of the D.C. League of Women Voters, which led the only organized campaign against the initiative, said, "I don't think peope knew what they were voting on last time." In a new election, Dixon said her group would press the still unresolved issues surrounding statehood that only recently have come to the forefront of the debate -- such as how to fund the statehood process.
The question of whether to risk a second election on statehood has caused somewhat of a split among supporters of the initiative and on the board of directors of the 51st State Committee, which is coordinating the statehood effort.
Officially, the 51st State Committee decided in a meeting last month that there should not be a new election, according to Edward Guinan, who wrote the statehood initiative. "We're moving for a solution one way or another," Guinan said, either through court litigation or by convincing the city council that the change would be purely technical. According to several sources close to the issue, the principal argument against holding another citywide election of stathood is that statehood advocates are not certain they can win. While the initiative won handily in seven of the city's eight wards, it lost about 2 to 1 in Ward 3, the predominantly white, most affluent area of the city west of Rock Creek Park in an election with a generally low turnout.
In November, when the second election would have to be held , voters citywide will be choosing five members to the D.C. schoold board in an election that potentially could bring out large numbers of voters. Ward 3, which generally yields considerable clout in citywide elections, will have a hotly contested schoold board race between Republican incumbent Carol Schwartz and Democrat Mary Ann Keefe, which should draw a heavy turnout.
"If we have to have another vote, we'll have to put on a campaign in Ward 3," said one statehood party member who asked not to be named. "That will cost us about $20,000. Then you figure on about another $20,000 for the rest of the city."
"It was a crazy box to get into," the supporter said, pointing out that even if the initiative won the second time around, the campaign could drain badly needed funds just when statehood advocates are looking to private donors to help fund the convention itself.
Guinan and others said that the backers of the initiative realized the wording flaw early last year, after the measure had been approved for the ballot. Guinan said that the citizens group pushing statehood, inexperienced in the city's still new referendum process, thought that the language could be cleaned up anytime before the actual Nov. 4 vote.
"Once you file that paper," a statehood advocate said he learned later, "You can't change a comma. It's set in stone."