Dear Councilmember Charles Allen, Chairman Phil Mendelson, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Board of Elections Chair Michael Bennett:
Many candidates for elected office in the District of Columbia are required to gather petition signatures this summer in order to qualify for the November ballot, but it will be impossible to do safely during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Candidates impacted by the nominating petitions process include Independent candidates running for DC Council, Delegate to the House of Representatives, or Shadow Representative or Senator, as well as all candidates for the State Board of Education and ANC. For ballot initiatives, the petition gathering period already has begun, even though gathering signatures is impossible, and ends over the summer.
These candidates and ballot initiative supporters need an alternative process to safely and responsibly get on the ballot. The Mayor, Council, and Board of Elections — who already have taken a significant, responsible step in moving to conduct most of the June 2nd primary by absentee ballot — should transparently develop a process that is easy to implement, while meeting the goal of requiring candidates to show they have a level of public support. It is critical to act soon so that candidates can plan accordingly to participate in the electoral process.
One option would be to create an online petition signature process as some states and cities use. However, doing this in less than two months is a huge undertaking. Given that BOE currently has the unexpected task of managing hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots for the June primary, it’s unreasonable to ask them to develop an online petition signature process.
Instead, I recommend that for this election cycle, the District should allow candidates to count donations from registered DC voters, which are clearly a sign of local support. Donations of any amount — as low as $1 — could substitute for a petition signature. I also recommend that the District waive petitions for ANC candidates.Candidates for ANC must gather 25 signatures, a relatively modest requirement. We should not make it hard for residents to run for these positions that are closest to the community.
The number of donations required to place a candidate on the ballot should be much lower than the number of petition signatures usually required, because that would be unrealistic if applied to collecting donations. For example, Independent At-Large candidates under current law must get 3,000 valid petition signatures, yet no candidate had more than 600 donations from DC residents as of April 10. BOE should instead use the donation threshold candidates must meet to qualify for public financing in the new Fair Elections system, since this is an existing measure of public support, or select another threshold. As an example, At-Large Council candidates must get 250 donations from DC residents to qualify for public financing. To get on the ballot this year, Independent At-Large candidates would need to get donations from 250 registered DC voters to qualify for the ballot. This would make it possible for candidates to get on the ballot if they can show some level of voter support and effort.
It’s important to note that this option is not perfect and has shortfalls. In particular, it would make it harder for residents with limited access to digital technology and residents without a bank account to participate. An online petition would have the same drawbacks. Unfortunately, it is hard to envision a process that matches the grassroots nature of the traditional petition process in a period of necessary social distancing.
I urge the Mayor, Council, and Board of Elections to start the process now for developing this alternative nominating procedure. This is important to supporting our democracy and giving clarity to voters and candidates.