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A D.C. judge ruled that a $15-per-hour minimum wage ballot initiative cannot move forward, saying that approval by the D.C. Board of Elections was invalid due to its members’ expired term limits.
The ruling throws into question the validity of previous BOE actions such as recent councilmember elections and a ballot initiative that legalized marijuana.
Judge Maurice Ross said during the Friday morning hearing that he was not persuaded by BOE Attorney Rudolph McGann’s arguments that the D.C. Charter, which states no specific term limit for board members, overruled the two-year term limits set by D.C. law.
“The Board of Elections argument is that [saying these members’ terms have expired] makes everything in the past four years go to chaos. That may be,” Ross said.
Questions about the board members’ terms were introduced by Harry Wingo, who sued BOE for approving language for a $15 minimum wage initiative intended to go on the ballot this fall. Attorneys for Wingo, the former D.C. Chamber of Commerce president, have argued in court that the expired terms of the BOE members, along with language that would exclude certain government workers and contractors, makes allowing the initiative to go on the ballot irresponsible.
“I’m encouraged by today’s decision,” Wingo said by email. “It was made possible by business community support and solid legal work.”
This ruling has, at least temporarily, halted the efforts of initiative supporters who need to collect thousands of signatures to get the $15 measure on the November ballot. Proponents of the $15 ballot initiative were confident going into the trial, citing the support of the board in the past. Immediately after the ruling, McGann told the judge BOE would appeal the decision.
“The Chamber of Commerce is willing to blow up democracy just to keep wages low,” Delvone Michael, director of D.C.’s Working Families Party chapter, said in a statement. “Today’s outrageous ruling asserts that we do not have the right to determine our own destiny in the District of Columbia. But the fight for a fair, $15 minimum wage has only just begun. And this ruling might slow us down, but it won’t stop us, and the right of the people to decide the kind of city we deserve will not be delayed for long. We’ll be appealing soon, and we know justice will prevail.”
D.C. Board of Elections spokesperson Margarita Mikhaylova said BOE does not comment on pending litigation.
Adam Eidinger, the leading force behind Initiative 71, said he’s not too concerned about marijuana legalization being overturned. Still, Eidinger said he won’t feel completely comfortable until he knows that all the elected officials sworn into office under the seemingly unapproved BOE are safe.
“I think the public’s voice is not going to be overturned over this technicality,” Eidinger said.
One look at the recent D.C. Vote–Washington City Paper poll shows you why Wingo and the Chamber worked to hard to invalidate the initiative: The survey found broad support for a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Eighty-seven percent of voters polled said they would support or probably support the increase.
Update, 4:30 p.m.: A spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General, which has not been involved in the lawsuit, says OAG “has communicated with counsel for the Board of Elections and is evaluating the case to determine what action, if any, OAG should take with regard to this litigation.”
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan; graphic by Zach Rausnitz