The Washington Post

No more residency requirement for D.C. ballot petition circulators?


Law change will make it easier for candidates and causes to get on the D.C. ballot. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

A proposed change to D.C. election law stands to make it somewhat easier to get a candidate or a cause on city ballots.

For time immemorial, those who gather signatures of D.C. voters for ballot petitions have been required to be D.C. voters themselves. On several occasions, candidates, referendums or initiatives have had scads of signatures challenged and disqualified after elections officials determined circulators weren’t in fact eligible voters.

But D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is proposing to take that particular arrow out of the petition-challenger’s quiver. That’s because the city is now being sued by the Libertarian Party over this very issue, and Mendelson is anticipating a loss.

This, from a memo sent to council members and staff Thursday: 

The existing requirement [that a circulator be a registered voter] is in apparent conflict with the Supreme Court’s decision in Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation, Inc. Further, a number of decisions in the United States Courts of Appeals strongly suggest that the residency requirement upon petition circulators, even in the absence of a registration requirement, could be successfully challenged on First Amendment grounds. … These amendments are intended to ensure that District of Columbia election law provides for the full enjoyment of core political speech by all persons as contemplated by the U.S. Constitution through participation in candidate and initiative petition circulation processes.

The Buckley case, brought by a group pursuing a ballot initiative in Colorado, was decided in 1999 and has been used by the Libertarians in other jurisdictions, including Virginia, to eliminate various circulator eligibility requirements. The bill could have that significant practical effect of making it easier for well-funded candidates or causes to hire professional petition circulators.

Mendelson’s emergency bill is expected to be taken up Tuesday by the D.C. Council.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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