The activists trying to ban corporate giving to local political campaigns say they have identified as many as 2,000 petition signatures that elections official should have counted as valid, putting them over the 23,298-signature threshold to allow voters to take up their Initiative 70 measure.
But the D.C. Board of Elections says that while the initiative backers might have gathered enough valid signatures overall, they fell short in meeting requirements that they collect signatures from at least 5 percent of registered voters in five of eight wards. Even allowing that all 2,000 new signatures are valid — “and it is a virtual certainty that that would not be the case,” the board said in a court filing — the activists would still fall 73 signatures short in Ward 5 and would fall even shorter in wards 2, 7 and 8.
Both parties are waiting on a D.C. Superior Court judge to iron out the dispute.
The most pointed questions surround the more than 3,100 voters — about 10 percent of the total signatures collected — rejected by elections officials due to an “address mismatch.” Those signatures belong to persons who are listed on the city rolls but who listed a different address when they signed the Initiative 70 petition — most likely because they moved since first registering. Initiative backers, organized as D.C. Public Trust, are left wondering why there are so many address mismatches when city law makes it simple to automatically change your voter registration address when you change your driver’s license address.
“It’s hard to believe the more than 3,000 D.C. registered voters disqualified on Initiative 70 petitions due to address mismatch declined to have DMV address updates go to the Board of Elections,” said Elissa Silverman, an initiative organizer and former Washington Post reporter.
Through an analysis of public records, D.C. Public Trust identified at least 51 disqualified petition signers whose names and addresses match a Department of Motor Vehicles list of drivers who changed their addresses. Their signatures were disqualified as address mismatches after they listed their new DMV addresses on the petitions while the Board of Elections still had their old address. The organizers have identified another 670 signers whose names match the list of drivers who changed their addresses with DMV.
This, according to the activists, suggests that the District has been less than diligent in following federal and local “motor voter” laws that say a DMV change-of-address should be automatically treated as a voter registration change-of-address, “unless the applicant states … that the change of address or name is not for voter registration purposes.” Silverman noted the DMV’s change-of-address form contains yes-or-no check boxes asking a driver of they’d like to register to vote or update their registration address. That’s more complicated and less foolproof than the simple opt-out box used in Maryland and other states.
Kenneth McGhie, the elections board’s general counsel, said the city is in full compliance with motor voter laws. The board, he said, interprets the check boxes loosely — even if a driver leaves the check boxes blank but still fills out and signs the voter registration portion of the form, the board will process a change of address. If there’s any ambiguity, he said — if the yes box is checked but there’s no signature, for instance — the board will contact the voter by mail to seek clarification or confirmation. “We’re not going to change somebody’s polling place unless we verify it,” McGhie said.
McGhie said he checked a handful of the 51 voters said to have filed change-of-address forms with DMV. Those voters generally failed to sign the form, thus preventing an automatic address update. At least one, he said, had a change of address processed after the board initially reviewed the Initiative 70 petitions.
Judge Laura A. Cordero is expected to rule on the board’s request to dismiss the case in the coming days. Regardless of how the initiative fight is resolved, Silverman said, the D.C. Council should examine how to make it simpler for voters to change their addresses, whether at DMV or other city agencies required by law to inform elections officials of address changes.