Has computerspeak taken over the District of Columbia's electoral process? Recent legal advertisements and a flyer mailed by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics notifies us that "Referendum 001" has been certified for the November ballot.
Referendum 001 would block long-term implementation of the city's recently adopted rent control law. It is sponsored by citizen groups that claim the new law is unfair to tenants.
Aha, thought I, "001" -- the computers are moving in on us. They abhor a numerical vacuum, hence they sneak zeroes in front of the actual number. After all, Korean Air Lines Flight 7, the one shot down by the Soviets in 1983, was transformed into the more dramatic Flight 007 probably by the computers that booked its passengers.
In the case of Refererendum 001, don't blame the computer, according to Emmett H. Fremaux Jr., executive director of the elections board.
Under the city's 1979 law that authorizes initiatives and referenda, Fremaux said, initiatives were numbered starting with 1 and continue indefinitely through successive elections. (There have been 17 since the law was passed. However, not all have been voted upon. If an initiative gets knocked off the ballot between its original certification and election day, it retains its number for historic reasons.)
Referenda (which politicians usually call referendums), however, are numbered under another provision of the same law starting with 001 and continuing indefinitely until, presumably, they reach 999 -- which, at the present rate of filing (the first in six years) need not be dealt with by a D.C. City Council until around the year A.D. 7979. That's no typographical error.
An initiative, by the way, is the proposed passage of a law directly by the electorate without going through the legislative body, in this case the council. A referendum asks the voters whether legislation passed by the council should be upheld or overturned.
The District's law is modeled after that of the state of Washington, which numbers initiatives and referendums serially and separately through successive elections. California, on the other hand, mixes the two forms of balloting into one list -- the widely publicized tax-restricting "Proposition 13," for instance -- and starts its numbering over with each election.