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"Bringing American Democracy to America's Capital,"

by Zainab Akbar May/June 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

Periodically, Poverty & Race has published articles listing the many ways in which the irony of lack of democracy in the nation’s capital, our home town, is played out. Complex Constitutional and historical issues are involved, as we are not a state. But DC residents pay taxes (the per capita tax burden for DC residents is greater than 48 of the 50 states); serve in the military (in the Vietnam War, DC suffered more casualties than 10 states); and in all other respects are citizens. That DC is a majority black town (whose population exceeds Wyoming’s) explains a lot. Congress pays a great deal of attention to us, however – mostly the kind we can do without. Congress can overturn every rule, law or regulation passed by our City Council (and frequently does) and exerts detailed budgetary control over how we spend our tax revenues. (Examples: forbidding use of DC funds to count votes cast on a medical marijuana initiative; barring implementation of a needle exchange program; requiring the Metro system to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to change signage and maps throughout the system to read “Ronald Reagan National Airport” rather than “National Airport.”)

Here’s an update on efforts to bring democracy to the District of Columbia.

International Support

The issue of DC voting rights is gaining greater recognition and support worldwide. In February 2004, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) released a report finding the United States government in violation of Articles II and XX of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man because of the denial of voting representation in Congress for DC residents. In response to the report, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said that he didn’t see a connection between the OAS findings and the Bush Administration’s goal of promoting a fully representative government in Baghdad and Iraq.

In October 2004, Belarus’ Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) blasted the United States government, charging that the U.S. was violating OSCE democratic election standards — which it is obligated to observe — by denying District residents the right to vote for Congressional representatives. The U.S. Mission to the OSCE responded by stating that the disenfranchisement of DC residents was imaginary — referring to DC residents’ lack of equal Congressional voting rights as a “supposed disenfranchisement.” The Republic of Belarus’ condemnation of the United States marks the first time that a sovereign state and a member of the 55-nation OSCE has publicly condemned the United States for its policy of disenfranchising the nearly 600,000 residents of its capital city. In November 2004, the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations introduced a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly on the “Situation of Democracy and Human Rights in the United States of America,” which highlights the denial of equal Congressional voting rights to the people of Washington, DC.

In April 2005, the OSCE released a report that cited the United States government’s obligation to ensure “equal voter rights” for all U.S. citizens — including the people of Washington, DC. The report marks the first time that the OSCE has formally addressed this issue. While the OSCE Election Observation Mission Final Report primarily focuses on U.S. compliance with OSCE democratic election standards during the November 2004 Presidential election, the report pointedly cites the United States government’s unqualified obligation as a member of the OSCE to ensure “equal voter rights” for Washington’s disenfranchised citizens.

The 1990 Copenhagen Document, which represents the human rights commitments of all OSCE member nations — including the United States — clearly states that the right “to take part in the governing of [one’s] country, either directly or through representatives freely chosen,” is a fundamental right, and further guarantees “universal and equal suffrage to adult citizens” in all OSCE member states. The OSCE will be holding its 14th Annual Session of the Parliamentary Assembly in Washington, July 1-5.

DC Voting Rights Summit and National Poll

At a DC Voting Rights Summit hosted by various Washington charitable foundations last January, DC Vote released the results of a new national poll showing strong bipartisan support for full Congressional voting representation for DC residents. The poll of 1,007 U.S. adults found that 82% of Americans believe District citizens should have equal Congressional voting rights — in both the Senate and the House — a number10 percentage points greater than reported in a similar poll conducted in 1999. The poll revealed that 78% of Americans have serious misunderstandings about the rights of citizens living in DC, but, when informed of DC’s disenfranchisement, they support equal voting representation in Congress for DC residents. The polling data showed strong support across age groups, gender and political party affiliations. Support for DC voting rights cut across party lines, with 87% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans supporting full representation.

Baghdadis and Washingtonians

In January 2005, Iraqi citizens and expatriates around the world had the great privilege of exercising the most important democratic civil right — the right to vote for their representatives in the national parliament. The same government that facilitated voting for Iraqi expatriates in the DC metro area continues to deny voting representation for DC residents.

As keen as George W. Bush’s Administration is to ensure fundamental rights to Iraqis, it has not ensured liberty and freedom in its most basic form for the residents of Washington. While the current administration has spent more than $150 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq — and plans to spend another $80 billion — DC residents are prohibited by Congress from spending a single penny of collected taxes on lobbying for full Congressional voting representation.

Moreover, DC residents risked and lost their lives to ensure that elections in Iraq took place. To illustrate this point, DC Vote joined DC’s non-voting Delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and three Washingtonian veterans of the Iraq war at a recent Capitol Hill press conference. The veterans wrote the House Democratic and Republican leaders asking that the House begin to bring democracy to DC by giving Delegate Norton a full vote in the Committee of the Whole. (The Committee of the Whole is the entire House of Representatives meeting in the form of a committee; this allows members to follow the less formal committee rules. She had that privilege in the 1993-94 Session, but when the Republicans gained control of Congress, it was taken away.) Specialist Marcus Gray, a DC resident and a recent returnee from the front line in Iraq, said: “We expect equal treatment, and the Army tries hard to see that all soldiers are treated equally.... However, I want equal treatment at home as well. I want the same voting representation in the House and the Senate as other soldiers. This step would make me as proud as I will be to see the Iraqi people go to the polls.”

No Taxation Without Representation Act of 2005

In January, DC Vote’s Executive Director, Ilir Zherka, joined U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Del. Norton at a press conference to introduce the “No Taxation Without Representation Act of 2005” (S. 195 and H.R. 286). The Act would give DC residents full voting representation in Congress: a voting member of the House of Representatives and two voting Senators.

At the press conference, Senator Lieberman announced his plans to build bipartisan support for the legislation. Lieberman said he was committed to recruiting Republican Senators to support the bill, and would also attempt to add the bill as an amendment to legislation considered on the Senate floor.

The District of Columbia Fairness in Representation Act

In June 2004, Representative Tom Davis (R-VA) introduced legislation to add a voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives to represent DC. Davis’ Bill — H.R. 4640, “The District of Columbia Fairness in Representation Act” — would establish the District of Columbia as a Congressional district for the purposes of representation in the House. The Act would also provide for the temporary apportionment of an additional Representative in the next eligible state, which likely would be Utah — a political compromise, as Utah would elect a Republican to offset the DC Democrat. H.R. 4640 would create a temporary increase in the number of House members from 435 to 437 until the 2010 Census, when Congressional districts would be re-apportioned back to 435 according to population. Though H.R. 4640 was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, and the Committee on Government Reform, no further action was taken in the 108th Congress.

DC Vote has been working with Rep. Davis to expand the provisions in his bill to include representation in the Senate for DC residents. While a vote in the House is very important, it is insufficient without representation in the Senate. Davis has re-introduced “The District of Columbia Fairness in Representation Act” (now H.R. 2043), with 11 co-sponsors.

Working With the Nationals to Get Out the Message

The link between baseball and the DC voting rights movement is a natural one. The decision to name the new Washington-area major league team the “Nationals” instead of the “Senators” (the name of DC’s former baseball team) stems directly from the District’s more than 200-year history of being denied voting rights in Congress. (Re-naming the team The Senators would have been something akin to a sick joke, given the District’s disenfranchisement.)

DC Vote has been working closely with the Washington Nationals, the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission (DCSEC) and the office of Delegate Norton to build a partnership and develop creative ways to take advantage of the educational opportunities presented by having a hometown baseball team. With the help of Del. Norton and Mark Tuohey, DCSEC Chairman, a banner carrying the message “Taxation Without Representation” is hanging at RFK Stadium — the same message that appears on the official DC license plates.

Zainab Akbar is Program Assistant for Outreach and Advocacy at DC Vote. More information on DC Vote, the history of the DC voting rights movement and current efforts to bring democracy to America's capital is available at

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