D.C. Fights For A Vote

The District of Columbia inches closer toward achieving its age-old goal of representation in the House

Ben Adler

A D.C. voting rights supporter holds a placard following a rally on April 16, 2007, near the Capitol.

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The line to enter the May 23 Senate Judiciary Committee session stretched well down the hallway. Packed inside were activists wearing stickers and t‑shirts emblazoned with the image that has become their movement’s trademark: a D.C. license plate bearing the wry motto: Taxation without representation.” Sens. Pat Leahy (D‑Vt.), Russ Feingold (D‑Wis.) and Orrin Hatch (R‑Utah) presided over a pleasant, if at times contentious, three-hour discussion of the bill that would give the District of Columbia – and its population of 581,530 residents (more than Wyoming) – a full voting representative in the U.S. House. 

The bill has attained a measure of bi-partisan support by coupling the representative for heavily Democratic D.C. with an additional one for heavily Republican Utah. Passed by the House on April 19, it was scheduled for mark-up in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs as In These Times went to press. But some prominent Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R‑Ky.) and the White House, in a March 20 statement of administration policy, have come out against the bill, arguing that it is unconstitutional because the Constitution stipulates that representatives shall come from the several states,” of which D.C. is not one. 

Utah fell just a few hundred residents short of adding a fourth member to its congressional delegation after the last census – unfairly, it contends, because more than 10,000 young Mormon missionaries who were temporarily abroad were not counted as residents. That explains Sen. Hatch’s interest in seeing this bill passed, though he was careful to add, This bill should not be seen as a step toward either statehood or Senate representation for the District of Columbia.” 

One audience member, Lars Hydle, a retired Foreign Service officer and member of the Washington, D.C., Republican Committee, explained that D.C. Republicans fully support the bill. Asked why so many national Republicans do not, he admitted, For partisan reasons; too many Democrats and not enough Republicans in D.C. The same reason so many Democrats support it.” 

The hearing’s turnout was just one manifestation of the extremely effective campaign that its supporters, led by the nonprofit DC Vote, have waged. 

DC Vote was founded in 1998, as a court case demanding representation for D.C. under the equal protection clause of the Constitution, Alexander v. Daley, was winding its way through the courts. In 2000, a federal court held by a 2 to 1 majority that it could not force Congress to add a member from D.C. When the Supreme Court declined to intervene, that insured only legislative action will grant representation for D.C.

DC Vote has eschewed the more extreme position of opponents of the bill, such as George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley, who argue that statehood is the only option. Statehood is a step beyond our mission,” says Kevin Paul Kiger, DC Vote’s communications director. But having a seat at the table where statehood is decided is a step in the right direction.” Kiger can quickly run down the myriad indignities that D.C. suffers at the hands of the federal government (which has the power to determine how D.C. is allowed to spend its own tax revenue), such as congressional efforts to undermine D.C.’s restrictive gun laws. 

With only seven paid staffers, DC Vote has managed major gains on an issue that has bedeviled activists for more than 200 years. A 2005 poll, commissioned by DC Vote, found, Just over 80 percent of American adults are not aware that D.C. does not have equal constitutional rights, including voting rights in Congress.” The poll also found that precisely the same percentage support giving D.C. voting rights once the issue is explained to them. DC Vote has raised awareness through free media like the license plates and putting the taxation” motto on RFK Stadium. 

They have also worked hard at building support locally and nationally. DC Vote’s list of national partners includes not just major civil rights organizations like the NAACP and good government groups like Common Cause, but the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Auto Workers. On the local level, they’ve brought on business organizations like the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans. Representatives of all these constituencies were out in force at the DC Vote march and rally on the National Mall on April 16. The rally, according to Kiger, was an essential catalyst that got the bill passed in the House a few days later.

Kiger is confident that President Bush will sign the law should it pass the Senate, even though his administration dispatched a Justice Department official to testify against the bill at the hearing. “[Bush] is not going to go down in history as being the president who vetoed a piece of legislation that would bring democracy to 600,000 Americans while he’s spending trillions of dollars and thousands of lives fighting for democracy in Iraq.”

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