Initiative Measures & Referenda
Guide to the Initiative and Referendum Process
This page is intended to provide general information about the process for placing an Initiative or Referendum Measure on the ballot. For a more in-depth account of the process, please consult D.C. Official Code 1-1001.16 or Chapter 10 of Title 3 of the D.C. Municipal Regulations.
Supporters File the Measure with the Board of Elections
The process begins when a registered District of Columbia voter (the proposer) files the proposed Measure with the Voter Services division of the District of Columbia Board of Elections (DCBOE). The filing must include:
- five copies of the full text of the Measure, a summary statement of no more than 100 words, and a short title of 15 words or less to describe the Measure
- an affidavit from the proposer that includes their name and address, and states that they are a registered voter in the District of Columbia
- a copy of the verified statement of contributions (the statement of organization and the first report of receipts and expenditures) that the proposer filed with the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF)
The Board of Elections Considers the Subject Matter
Once a Measure is properly filed, DCBOE publishes it in the DC Register and provides notice of a public meeting to consider whether the subject matter meets the requirements set forth in the law. Members of the public are invited to submit written testimony on the subject matter and to testify before the Board at the public meeting.
Under the law, a Measure:
- must have been filed in the proper form (as indicated in the “Supporters File the Measure with the District of Columbia Board of Elections” above)
- must present a proper subject under the District Charter (Title IV of the Home Rule Act)
- must be consistent with the U.S. Constitution
- must not appropriate funds
- must not negate or limit a budgetary act of the District of Columbia Council
- must not authorize discrimination that is prohibited under the DC Human Rights Act
If a Measure does not meet these requirements, the Board is required to reject it. If the Board rejects a Measure, the proposer may, within ten days of such rejection, apply to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia for a writ in the nature of mandamus to compel the Board to accept the Measure.
The Board Approves a Short Title and Summary Statement
Within 20 days after it accepts a Measure, the Board must prepare its official short title and summary statement and place the Measure in the proper legislative format. The Board’s formulations are presented at a public meeting where both proponents and opponents are invited to comment. The Board's responsibility is to approve language that is clear, impartial, and a fair reflection of the contents of the Measure.
The Challenge Period Begins
Once approved, the Board’s formulations are published in the DC Register, in a newspaper of general circulation, and on the DCBOE website.
- For an Initiative Measure, publication in the DC Register begins a 10-day challenge period during which any registered voter may object to the short title, summary statement, or legislative form in the Superior Court.
- For a Referendum Measure, publication in the newspaper begins a 10-day challenge period during which any registered voter may object to the short title, summary statement, or legislative form in the Superior Court.
The Petition Form is Approved
At the end of the challenge period (or once any court challenges are successfully resolved), DCBOE prepares an original petition form for the Measure’s proposer to adopt at a public meeting.
Supporters Circulate the Petition
- To place a Measure on the ballot, supporters of an Initiative or Referendum must collect the signatures of at least five percent of the voters registered citywide. These signatures must be distributed to reflect at least five percent of the registered voters in at least five of the eight wards.
- For an Initiative Measure, the proposer has 180 days beginning the day after the petition is adopted to gather signatures using the petition form provided.
- For a Referendum Measure, the proposer has until the end of the congressional review period for the Council act at issue to gather signatures using the petition form provided.
- DCBOE can provide petition sheets to the proposer in either physical or electronic format, but completed petition sheets must be filed in hard copy form. (For more information on electronic or mobile petition circulation, please contact the DCBOE's Voter Services division.)
DCBOE Verifies Petition Signatures/Petition Challenge Period Begins
The process for verifying the petition signatures is complex and detailed. See D.C. Code §1-1001.16(k)-(o). In general, the Board must determine whether each person whose name appears on the petition is a properly registered DC voter (in the particular election district, if applicable) and then verify a random sample of the signatures on the petition against the signature on file for the voter in the Board's records. Statistical formulas are used during the random sample to ensure, with at least a 95-percent confidence level, that the petition meets the legal requirements. The Board is given 30 days to complete the petition verification process. Under the law, the proponents of the measure and the elected official may send representatives to watch the petition verification process. For more information on the petition verification process, please contact the Office of General Counsel by phone at (202) 727-2194 or by email at [email protected].
On the third day after the petition is filed, it is posted for a 10-day period during which any registered voter may challenge the petition by specifying alleged defects in the petition.
The Measure is Certified for the Ballot
At the end of the signature verification phase, the Board calls a public meeting to announce whether the petition meets the citywide and ward-level requirements. If the petition meets the requirements, the Measure is then certified for the election ballot. All registered voters -- regardless of party affiliation -- are eligible to vote on Initiative or Referendum Measures.
- For an Initiative Measure, DCBOE holds an election during the next citywide election held at least 90 days after the certification.
- For a Referendum Measure, DCBOE holds an election within 114 days of the certification (but if another citywide election is already scheduled to occur within 54 to 114 days of the certification, DCBOE may present the Referendum at that election).
If you have any questions, call DCBOE’s Voter Services division at (202) 727-2525. For legal inquiries, contact DCBOE’s Office of the General Counsel at (202) 727-2194 or by email at [email protected].