A NOTE of caution should be expressed concerning the decision of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to take the education tax credit initiative off the November ballot. The elections board must be careful about undoing the will of voters who petition to place an issue on the ballot, especially when elected city officials -- including the mayor who appointed the members of the elections board -- have publicly promised to oppose the initiative. The referendum process was designed to give voters some mechanism for creating law without interference from elected officials. The election board's decision to take the tax initiative off the ballot therefore comes close in appearance to being a political decision.

This is not to argue that the education tax credit is a good idea. We opposed it. And it is not to say that the elections board acted without regard for the law. It did not. The District's law states that people who circulate petitions to get an initiative on the ballot must be qualified electors who are registered to vote in the District, live in the District and intend to live for some time. It was ruled that seven of the people who circulated the tax credits petition did not intend to live in the city any longer than was necessary to earn money by collecting enough signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. Last year, the elections board allowed the gambling initiative to remain on the ballot, although the board had ruled that some of the people collecting signatures for that drive were also unqualified. Chairman of the elections board, Albert J. Beveridge, explained that the people illegally circulating the gambling initiative petitions collected only slightly more than one percent of the signatures required to get it on the ballot, while, for the education tax credit, unqualified petitioners collected 82 percent of the signatures. The magnitude of the violation, in his view, justified the board's decision to invalidate one campaign while allowing the other.

The difference in the size of the violation may be a reasonable explanation for the different treatment the two received. But a violation of the law inarguably took place in both cases. And the basis on which the board decided to treat the two differently is not a part of its rules. The board's rules state that the failure of a circulator to be a qualified voter should not invalidate the signature of qualified voters on petitions. No one has questioned the validity of the 27,000 signatures of registered District voters on the tax credit petition. Only the qualifications of the petition circulators have been questioned.

In fact, the board should alter its rules to remove the ambiguity about what can lead to the removal of an initiative from the ballot. A clear line of sufficient cause is a must if the board is to avoid the suspicion that it is subject to political pressure on initiatives that do not please the powers-that-be in the District Building.