The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics yesterday approved the circulation of a proposed citizens' initiative to prohibit District employers from requiring employes or job applicants to take drug detection tests, and from discriminating against those who refuse to take such tests.

Proponents of the initiative now have 180 days to collect more than 18,000 signatures to get it on the ballot. The soonest the measure could be put before the voters would be next May's presidential preference primary.

Viola James, author of the initiative, said she submitted the proposal in response to recent firings of police and fire department recruits after they were given tests for drug use. It would apply to all employers in the District, both private companies and government.

"Employes in the District have rights," James said after the board approved the petition. "This isn't Moscow."

James filed as a Republican candidate for D.C. delegate to Congress last year, but did not get enough signatures to win a place on the ballot.

On another issue, elections board Chairman Edward W. Norton said that the first day of returns from the board's reregistration mailing yielded 1,800 undeliverable returns and 100 responses from people still living at the address where they were registered and wanting to reregister.

"This begins to suggest that our surmise that our[voter]list was greatly inflated was in fact correct," Norton said at a meeting of the board yesterday.

The board is in the process of trying to clean up the city's tangled voter registration list, which now includes about 400,000 names, by updating addresses and eliminating duplications and names of persons no longer living in the District. A first mailing of unforwardable cards was begun last week, starting in Ward 8, and William H. Lewis, acting executive director, said it would be completed on schedule by July 15.

A second, forwardable mailing will go out to persons whose first card was returned to the board.

Persons who voted last year or registered since the elections do not have to reregister. About 220,000 mailings are being sent, and Norton said yesterday that all but about60,000 of those names eventually will be pared from the list.

"We are optimistic we can get a manageable list by November," when the city will hold elections for six school board seats, he said.

The elections board also released yesterday a list of D.C. officers, employes and candidates who were required to file financial disclosure statements by the end of May, which also states whether they filed, asked for an extension or failed to file.

Of the 1,401 required to file, 51 failed to do so and did not ask for an extension. Most failing to file were delegates to the Statehood Constitutional Convention or candidates for office. No one in office failed to file.