Giving D.C. Residents the Vote: It's the Right Thing to Do

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, September 13, 2007

A dozen reasons why the U.S. Senate should act as soon as next week to approve voting rights for District residents:

• It's good politics for Republicans. At a moment when you're stuck with the blame for a war gone bad, this is a chance to claim the moral high ground and do right by half a million disenfranchised Americans. Yes, this gives the other guys a lock on a new House seat, but the beauty of this bill is that it is politically neutral because it also creates an extra, assuredly Republican, seat for Utah.

• It's good politics for Democrats. With a decent chunk of your base grumbling that you've caved to the GOP on the war, here's a chance to reestablish what you're supposed to be about: extending rights to those who have been left out.

• It will play well beyond our borders. By passing this one bill, you can silence our critics in Beijing, Berlin and beyond who win rhetorical points by chastising us for depriving American citizens of a basic right. "America is the only democracy in the world that denies voting representation to its capital's residents," says Ilir Zherka, executive director of the D.C. Vote advocacy group. "That hypocrisy must end."

• It affirms the bedrock principles we're supposed to be exporting to Iraq. "How can we fight to bring democracy to Baghdad and not do the same for D.C.?" asks Rep. Tom Davis, the Fairfax Republican who is the author of the D.C. voting rights bill.

• It's constitutional. You may hear otherwise from the anti crowd, but a remarkable array of scholars, spanning the ideological spectrum, have concluded that the Founders never intended to deny the vote to any Americans. (Alexander Hamilton even proposed that once the new city's population reached a reasonable level, Congress should grant its residents the vote.)

• It's Congress's job. District residents voted in federal elections until 1801, when Congress converted land formerly controlled by Virginia and Maryland into a separate jurisdiction, deciding that its residents could no longer vote. Congress has the same authority to reverse itself, say scholars such as Kenneth Starr and Patricia Wald, political opposites who sat together on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. "Congress," Davis says, "has the power under the District Clause to determine by legislation the rights of District residents to representation, just as it has given those residents access to the federal courts."

• The D.C. vote is the premier civil-rights issue of this era. "This is a landmark moment in the story of expanding voting and civil rights in this country," says Mike Panetta, the District's elected shadow representative. "Senators need to ask themselves if they are going to do the right thing, or will they risk being lumped with the likes of George Wallace in the history books?"

• It may not be in play today, but the black vote is not going to be monolithic for the Democrats forever. "I would like some day for African Americans to feel more at home in the Republican Party than they have in the past 70 years," says Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a Republican supporter of D.C. rights. Or, as Jack Kemp, the former GOP congressman who is a District resident and longtime advocate for a D.C. vote, puts it: "A presidential veto on this would consign the Republican Party in perpetuity to 8 to 10 percent of the black vote."

• D.C. residents pay taxes and contribute to Social Security and Medicaid, yet, unlike all other Americans, play no role in determining how those dollars are spent.

• Washington is not a community of transients, nor can most of its residents vote "back home." Well more than half of District residents have lived in the city for more than 20 years. And the District's size is no factor here: Wyoming has far fewer residents, yet it has two senators and a representative in Congress.

• District residents must serve on federal juries to enforce our laws, yet, as Zherka says, "don't have a vote when those laws are made."

• Darryl Dent, 21, killed when an explosive device hit his vehicle in Iraq. Darrell Lewis, 31, killed in Afghanistan when insurgents attacked his unit with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small-arms fire. Kevin Shea, 38, killed in Iraq by rocket fire. These are U.S. service members who gave their lives in the current wars although they hailed from a place where voters have no say in their nation's choices on war and peace.

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