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Effort to raise D.C. tipped minimum wage certified for November ballot

An activist with One Fair Wage holds a sign during a demonstration in D.C. in 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
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Initiative 82, the renewed effort to raise the District’s base minimum wage for tipped workers, will appear on the November ballot.

The D.C. Board of Elections determined Wednesday that the initiative’s backers collected the necessary signatures for the measure to qualify for the general election ballot, a decision that followed a multiple-week delay in determining whether they met a legal requirement to get signatures from at least 5 percent of voters in five of the city’s eight wards.

But the delayed ruling caused frustration among proponents of the measure who wanted it to appear on the June 21 primary ballot instead.

As proposed, the initiative would gradually raise the city’s tipped minimum wage of about $5 per hour to meet D.C.’s standard minimum wage, which is $15.20 per hour, by 2027. A nearly identical proposal was passed by 55 percent of D.C. voters in 2018 but was later repealed by the D.C. Council.

Election officials said last month Initiative 82 backers got valid signatures from registered voters in Wards 1, 2, 3 and 4 but had not met the requirement in 5, 7 and 8, leaving Ward 6 to determine the measure’s fate. After several meetings and inconclusive attempts at statistical sampling, the board decided to tabulate all the signatures proponents had collected in Ward 6.

On Wednesday, board Chair Gary Thompson said that the initiative’s proponents reached the 5 percent threshold there, certifying it for the ballot — but the delay pushed it out of the window to qualify for the primary.

According to the D.C. code, ballot initiatives can appear in the next election held at least 90 days after the measure is certified, meaning Wednesday’s ruling would apply to the Nov. 8 general election.

Nikolas Schiller, an organizer with the D.C. Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry, which is supporting the measure, contended at Wednesday’s meeting that organizers turned in petition signatures months ago to be considered for the June 21 primary. Appearing on the ballot in November instead, he asserted, could have an impact on workers if the measure is approved, as tipped workers will probably have to wait longer for raises to go into effect.

“If we wanted to be on the General Election ballot, we would have turned the petitions in this Friday, April 8, which is the 180-day deadline,” the committee said in a statement.

Elections officials contended that the delay was not caused by an error but in part because of sampling issues in addition to recent ward redistricting that changed city boundaries. Thompson said the board needed to ensure all signatories were properly listed in the correct ward.

“I wish we could have leniency here and do this retroactively,” Thompson said. “But the statutes are really clear. And it will be on the ballot, rest assured, barring a successful challenge.”

Opponents of the measure will probably still aim to keep the measure off the ballot altogether. In March, Washington City Paper reported that local bartender Valerie Graham, who has opposed past efforts to phase out the tipped minimum wage, filed a still-pending challenge against Initiative 82 backers’ signatures, questioning their validity.