The D.C. Public Trust filed a request for judicial review at the D.C. Superior Court on August 17 in a move challenging the determination of the D.C. Board of Elections that the group did not submit the valid signatures of registered voters to put Initiative 70 on the November ballot.
Activists with the group contend that the elections board undercounted duly registered voters and improperly disqualified others.
"Our review finds that Initiative 70 clearly qualified for the ballot, and we expect the court will agree," said Bryan Weaver, the Ward 1 activist who filed the initiative with the Board of Elections. "The work of the Board of Elections gets to the heart of our democracy. What we found in our review raises concerns about the integrity of the democratic process in local D.C. elections."
Trust officials said members of the group conducted two separate recounts of the board's work and found more than 24,500 voters identified as duly registered by the Board of Elections on submitted petition sheets, surpassing the 5 percent collection rate required by D.C. law. The group also found that it met the required 5 percent mark in six of eight wards.
The court filing seeks an expedited review of the board's work to reverse its initial determination and place Initiative 70 on the ballot on November 6.
All this comes after the Board of Elections invalidated about 1,700 signatures the committee had submitted. During the months prior to submitting the signatures, committee members gathered more than 30,000 names by canvassing neighborhoods and approaching voters at the polls.
Committee members said at the time that they would fight to ensure that the board's decision didn't jeopardize Initiative 70.
"What has happened is that the board has gone through its process of verifying voter registrations and addresses," said Initiative 70 Committee Chairman Sylvia B. Brown. "The 1,700 people identified are not registered at the addresses they needed to be. What the Initiative 70 team and a significant number of volunteers have been doing is reviewing the work of the board."
"I think their process has some flaws. We're looking at the markings made – there are some inconsistencies."
"We're going through line-by-line. There are a lot of questionable issues," he said. "For example, we've come across registered voters with different names such as John Wilson and Jonathan Wilson for the same person. There are also hyphenated names that are being questioned."
The most problematic issue, Weaver said, is a resident moving from one floor to another in an apartment building. They have not moved from the ward or to another polling place but that has become an issue.
"Ward 8 numbers have gone down dramatically because the information was not updated," he said. "We know they're legal voters. More than 80 percent of them are legal. Now, we're dealing with the numbers game."
Weaver, 42, and Brown said organization officials were not given a master list so a team of 20 people had to scour each page of the 30,000 signatures.
"They don't make it easy or fair," said Weaver.
Brown, 37, said news of the initiative's demise is premature.
"People in the media and on social media have been pontificating that we're done. [However], I'm still very confident that we'll get on the ballot."
Both Brown and Weaver said the initiative is a grassroots-driven effort to remove direct corporation contributions not just from candidates and elected officials, but also to constituent services funds, inaugural and transition funds and legal defense funds.
"This would put the District in line with the Congressional and federal levels," said Weaver. "There would be no direct contributions from a company. A CEO or executive could write a check but not a corporate citizen like Target or Giant Food."
Creation of the committee – which is comprised of residents from all eight wards – was prompted by a troubling increase in contributions from members of the real estate sector and developers with multiple subsidiaries and entities, the pair said.
"They were giving 10 times, 20 times what's legally allowed," said Weaver. "We wanted to stop this but there wasn't a lot of support from [elected officials]. They take bundles [of cash] because it's easy."
Another concern, Weaver said, is that council members are accepting more money from corporations than ordinary residents. If nothing else, he and other supporters of Initiative 70 said, the skewing of contributions in this gives the appearance of "pay for play" which benefits corporations and big business and few others.
Brown credited longtime community activist Phil Pannell and Ward 8 volunteers for their work.
"They got on the stump and supporters jumped on the bandwagon," she said with a laugh. "Also, some advisory neighborhood commissioners have passed resolutions in support of the initiative."
Brown said the committee has gotten "quiet support" from the D.C. Council, with Council Member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) being its most vocal supporter.
"As with any council, constituents drive them," she said. "It's like the tail wagging the dog or leading from behind. We're giving these council members the courage to help them move past the status quo."
The issue of corporate contributions, bundling and related issues has been at the forefront of public attention since it became public that the U.S. Attorney's Office and federal investigators had opened an investigation trying to ascertain if Jeff Thompson, a major donor to D.C. political campaigns, violated local and federal campaign laws.
In addition, embattled Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has been fighting off calls for his resignation following guilty pleas by his aides and a close friend for actions taken during his run for mayor. Meanwhile, several members of the council have been entangled in theft, improprieties and ethical lapses that has stained the body and raised the ire and disgust of residents.
"The scandals are kindling for this effort," said Brown. "This is bigger than any sort of cloud hanging over the legislature. This is about good government and the accountability of government and government officials. People are now talking about full-scale change to the campaign finance law and public financing."
"As we said from the beginning, this is one step to help D.C. politics grow and mature."