Mitt Romney is ahead of his competition in getting on the D.C. ballot. (Jim Cole/AP)

Ballot access is not guaranteed for major presidential candidates; they can gather petition signatures like everyone else, or, at least in the past, candidates could buy their way onto the ballot with payments to local political committees.

This year is a little different; for various reasons, the law does not currently allow for the buy-in option. The D.C. Council passed an emergency bill this month that would fix the issue, but it is unclear if and when Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) will sign the bill. So presidential candidates — including incumbent Democrat Barack Obama — has been forced to pick up and circulate ballot petitions while the buy-in issue is resolved.

According to local party rules, GOP candidates have to pay the D.C. Republican Committee $5,000 in addition to submitting 296 signatures from registered GOP voters. Should Gray sign the emergency bill, they could forgo the signatures for a $10,000 fee. Democrats, on the other hand, charge only $2,500 for a straight buy-in should a candidate opt not to collect 1,000 Democratic voter signatures.

On the GOP side, four of the top seven candidates — Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich — are now circulating petitions. The Romney campaign turned in a batch of signatures Wednesday. Another, Rick Perry, is in the process of verifying his 32-member slate of delegates and alternates, a prerequisite for circulating petitions.

The other two candidates — Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum — appear less concerned about contesting the District’s delegates. D.C. Republican Committee Executive Director Paul D. Craney said he was “not quite sure” what Bachmann and Santorum have planned.

To put things in perspective, the District’s 19 delegates (16 pledged to the primary winner, plus the local party chairman, national committeeman and committeewoman) might not be at the top of their priority list, considering well over 2,000 delegates are expected to vote in Tampa next summer.

The deadline for petition submissions and/or buy-ins is Jan. 4.