Senior Correspondent

Voting Rights Act campaign hits D.C. (FCN, 08-18-2005)

WASHINGTON ( – Residents of the nation’s capital recently moved one step closer to voting equality with all other U.S. citizens, while on the same day, they took what many consider a step backwards. On Apr. 19, the House of Representatives voted 241-177 to approve a bill that would increase full House membership from 435 to 437, giving the 500,000 residents of the District of Columbia a seat and adding a temporary at-large seat for Utah.

However, the D.C. Council also voted 9-2 to approve a plan put forward by Mayor Adrian Fenty to assume control of the city’s public schools. Mayor Fenty will now be in charge of the 55,000-student system, its budget, key administrative functions and capital improvement program.


“This legislation corrects a serious flaw in our democracy,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of the legislative “compromise” which would grant D.C. a House vote. “We will not rest until full voting representation in the House is granted to the District of Columbia,” she said.

The measure would provide for a vote in the House for D.C., long considered by residents as “the last colony” in the U.S., but would not provide votes in the Senate. The bill now goes to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed the position of the Bush administration, saying it is unconstitutional and that he will oppose it.

The vote came just days after as many as 5,000 marched on the Capitol in bitterly cold weather, facing gale-force-wind-gusts on Apr. 16 in observance of D.C. Emancipation Day, the date in 1862 when all enslaved persons in the District were set free and their owners compensated by the federal government.

A coalition of more than 60 groups supporting voting rights supported linking the Emancipation Day observance with the push for the bill granting D.C. a vote on the House floor. “The Voting Rights March is an opportunity to educate the nation about the District’s taxation without representation,” Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote said in a statement.

“Approximately 80 percent of Americans are unaware that the nearly 600,000 citizens of Washington, D.C. are denied voting representation in Congress. District residents pay federal income taxes, serve on juries, and die in wars to defend American democracy. However, our elected federal officials are only delegates in the House, or ‘Shadow Senators’ without rights to vote on legislation.”

Opponents of the legislation point to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says members of the House should be chosen “by the people of the several states.”

“Judges and legal experts agree that since D.C. is not a state, it cannot elect members of Congress,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. Supporters, led by the current D.C. delegate in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, say the Constitution grants Congress the authority to give the district full voting rights.

Currently, Del. Norton can vote in committee and on some amendments, but not on final passage of any bill. The idea of giving a seat to Washington was dormant during the past 12 years when Republicans controlled the House, but it was Republican Tom Davis of Virginia, who came up with the idea of coupling the D.C. seat with a temporary at-large seat for Republican-leaning Utah.

That plan is a compromise version of legislation originally proposed by Del. Norton, which would have granted the District a voting House seat and two seats in the Senate. The original Norton proposal is itself a compromise from a Constitutional amendment proposed in 1978 which would have given D.C. residents a House seat and two Senate seats. Washington is the only capital of a major industrialized nation which does not have voting rights in the national legislature.

Indeed, supporters of full statehood for the district complain that all proposed solutions, short of full statehood, will leave D.C. residents in an inferior status when compared with voters in any of the 50 states of the Union.

“That’s what we’re trying to work on–a broad, grassroots mobilization, to challenge the mayor’s plan,” labor activist Roger Newell, coordinator of the D.C. Coalition for Democracy in Education, said recently in a broadcast interview. The coalition is also targeting, “the hidden players who are manipulating the whole discussion and debate. People should be very clear. It wasn’t until after [Mayor Fenty] was elected that he pulled this rabbit out of his proverbial hat, and started running around saying [school reform] was the most important thing in the city.

“On top of that, to deny residents the right to vote on changing the charter of this city, is a major slap in the face of people who live in the confines of Washington, D.C. And to add insult to that injury, you have the Mayor and the Council, leading a march to Capitol Hill to demand voting rights for the District.

“It’s not really voting rights for the District; it’s more like voting rights for them so that they can use it to curry favors for their friends. I think that’s what we’re faced with. They don’t want to be encumbered by democracy, because they have deals to cut. They have friends to repay for campaign contributions, and that type of thing, and they don’t want the people getting in the way of that kind of stuff,” said Mr. Newell.

Under the plan, the school superintendent will report directly to the new Mayor, who was just elected last November. The next step is for Congress to change the city’s Home Rule Charter to accomplish the plan, without a referendum of D.C. voters, many of whom oppose the takeover, critics claim.

“To have a situation in the city where you have elected officials, particularly African American elected officials who are saying that the people of this city don’t have the right to vote on major changes in their lives, puts them right in the camp of all those Southern politicians who refused African Americans to vote in the South,” stated Mr. Newell.