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"Democracy for DC?"

January/February 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

H.R. 5388, the District of Columbia Fair and Equal Voting Rights Act of 2006, was introduced in the 109th Congress by Republican Congressman Thomas Davis III, representing suburban Virginia, and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton—who can sponsor legislation and vote in committees but not on the floor where legislation is finally enacted or rejected. It would provide the nearly 600,000 residents of the nation’s capital for the first time with voting representation in the House (but not the Senate—we can, happily, vote for President, thanks to the 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, but a 1978 proposed Constitutional amendment to give the District two Senators and one House member, approved by Congress, failed to receive ratification by two-thirds of the states). Since the new Representative would undoubtedly be a Democrat, the political solution was to give Utah (the state that came closest in the 2000 Census to gaining an additional House member, feels it got shortchanged by that Census in not counting as part of its population its many residents working abroad as missionaries, and is a state that just as undoubtedly would elect a Republican) an extra House member as well (increasing the House size from 435 to 437).The bipartisan negotiations around H.R. 5388 involved agreement with the Utah legislature and governor on a Congressional map for that state that will not disadvantage any current House member.

While far from an ideal solution to DC’s “taxation without representation” status (that motto appears on the District’s vehicle license plates)—we still are frozen out of representation in the Senate, despite having a larger population than several states, paying higher per capita federal taxes than many states, having more combat deaths and casualties than many states; and it is only a several-year fix—it was a start. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in its landmark 1964 voting rights case, Wesberry v. Sanders: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which we, as good citizens, must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined. Our Constitution leaves no room for classification in a way that unnecessarily abridges that right.”

Although H.R. 5388 cleared the House Government Reform Committee last May by a 29-4 vote, it never was acted on by the full House (afterward, it would need Senate and Presidential approval). The Republican House leadership decided not to bring the bill to the floor for a vote during the final lame-duck session of the 109th Congress. Davis and Norton have pledged to bring the same bill before the 110th Congress as soon as possible. We’ll keep you posted.

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