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VOTING RIGHTS

Supporters Vow Not to Give Up

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By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

Advocates of a bill to give District residents a vote in the House of Representatives said yesterday they were dismayed that the White House opposes the measure but were determined to lobby Congress to get it passed.

"Our supporters are disappointed in this White House where you have a president who talks so much about voting rights abroad but can't do it two blocks from the White House," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, a nonprofit advocacy group. "The White House opposition is just going to fire up our folks."

Alex Conant, a White House spokesman, said Friday that the Bush administration opposes the bill because of constitutional concerns. The Constitution states that only "people of the several states" elect representatives to the House, and the District is not a state, he said.

For some District residents, "it's all about politics," said Wendell Joice, 62, a lifelong Washingtonian who lives in Brightwood. "I don't like it. We're citizens, and we should have the rights of all citizens and not be caught up in a lot of political maneuvers that are disenfranchising us."

Roland Harris, 76, of Fort Dupont said that his friends have given up hope that the long-debated voting rights will be approved. He said there's been more talk in his church, barbershop and neighborhood about the city's requirement that drivers 75 and older must take written and road tests than about the voting rights bill.

"Nobody's talking about it," Harris said. "I think they don't have any confidence that we're going to get it. So they're thinking, 'I'm not going to get uptight or excited about it. I thought the last time we were going to get it.' After that, I think they lost interest in it."

Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, outreach director for D.C. Vote, said he will organize residents, as well as civil rights and political groups, to urge members of Congress to pass "voting rights in the nation's capital."

The current bill, introduced last year, would expand the House of Representatives from 435 to 437 seats, adding a seat for the District, which is predominantly Democratic, and for Utah, a Republican stronghold. Currently, the District has a non-voting delegate in the House and no representation in the Senate.

Zherka and others, including some Republicans, took issue with the argument that the bill is unconstitutional. Supporters of the measure argue that it would be legal because the Constitution gives Congress broad powers over the District.

Zherka said the Bush administration seems to show little concern about constitutional rights when it comes "to checking people's phone records and putting people in prison without telling them" their charges.

"But in this country, when it comes to trying to give voting rights, there's a concern about the Constitution," Zherka said, adding that there will be a march April 16, Emancipation Day, from Freedom Plaza to Capitol Hill in support of the bill.

The measure, sponsored by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), is expected to go to the House floor this week. The Judiciary and the House Oversight and Government Reform committees have passed the bill, which also would need Senate approval.

"This fight is by no means over," Norton said yesterday. "Frankly, I always expect setbacks on D.C. matters. It's like a boomerang that makes us struggle harder."

Norton said that any "rumors of the death of the voting rights act are premature" and that such talk might be an effort to kill the bill before it reaches the Senate.

Norton said she was not shaken by the White House opposition because "neither he [President Bush] nor his staff has had a final bill to scrutinize. I'm not giving up on the president and I'm not giving up on the Senate, because the two Utah senators have as much to gain as I do."

Utah is included in the legislation because it is the next state slated to pick up a seat in the House based on its population growth in 2000. The state's Republican senators, Orrin G. Hatch and Robert F. Bennett, have worked hard to get this vote, Norton said.

Naomi Hart, a 50-year resident of Woodridge in Northeast, said she hasn't been closely following the debate on voting rights, but she wants the bill approved.

"We're in great numbers here in D.C., and we need that vote," Hart, 84, said. "We pay taxes, and we should have the same right to vote as others."


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