- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Activists hoping to ban direct corporate contributions to D.C. political campaigns are no longer trying to put their issue before voters in November so they can focus on preserving thousands of petition signatures they gathered earlier this year and make the ballot in a special election next spring.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Laura A. Cordero on Tuesday granted a request from the D.C. Committee to Restore Public Trust for a four-week extension to the signature-gathering period so committee members can review, line-by-line, the pages of signatures that were rejected by the D.C. Board of Elections because they failed to meet the minimum requirements to put their question — known as Initiative 70 — on the ballot.

The judge’s extension of the trust’s collection period allows the group to review the board’s work and potentially avoid starting from scratch, yet it forced members to concede the initiative will not be printed on the Nov. 6 ballot. The 180-day collection period would have ended on Monday, although the group earlier made a tactical move — one that ultimately backfired — of shirking the extra time and submitting its petition pages on July 9 to make the November ballot.

The trust cannot gather more signatures during the four-week extension, but it could get the issue on a future ballot if members convince the court that election officials erred in tossing out so many of the group’s signatures. Specifically, they have to prove they collected signatures from 5 percent of the electorate and 5 percent of voters in five of the city’s eight wards to ensure a distribution of support throughout the District.

“The only way for this to stay alive is to do our own line-by-line count over the next four weeks,” trust organizer Bryan Weaver said Tuesday.

With an extension in hand, the trust is hoping for another shot at the ballot in early 2013. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat who was appointed to the chairman’s seat by his colleagues in June, is expected to cruise to victory in his bid on Nov. 6 to finish ousted chairman Kwame R. Brown’s term through 2014. If that happens, the city will have to schedule a special election to fill the at-large seat vacated by Mr. Mendelson.

Last month, the board ruled the trust had collected 21,572 valid signatures, or 1,726 fewer than the 23,298 needed. The activists initially accused the board of grossly miscounting its valid signatures. But election officials hit back, arguing the trust did not understand their system of green and red notations that determine whether a voter’s signature is valid or not.

Mr. Weaver accused the board of rampant inconsistencies in how it notated the petition pages, especially when compared to a master list of valid signers it obtained from the board. He said his own name did not appear on the list, heightening the trust’s suspicions.

In a motion to dismiss the trust’s appeal to the courts, the elections board said the group was simply careless in its “rush” to get the initiative on the general election ballot. The volunteer group counted “OKs” and check marks in the board’s notations without considering additional nuances within the city’s two-phased, color-coded system that determines which signatures are valid and which are not, the board said.

Mr. Weaver said the trust’s independent analysis of the board’s work was hampered by its inability to access the board’s computer database and to personally view the board’s validation process.

“It’s sort of impossible to think you’d have two volunteers (from the trust) sitting there, eight hours a day, for 30 days,” he said of the group’s opportunity to monitor board employees.

The trust had planned to make its case for the November ballot in a courtroom showdown on Thursday, but members are no longer seeking the emergency hearing.

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