Got a minute? Sue Panzer wants to talk to you about the Voting Rights Amendment. No, not the Voting Rights Act. That's the national legislation, and it's all settled. The Voting Rights Amendment is about the District of Columbia, and since Panzer is president of the D.C. League of Women Voters. . . .
No. You're thinking of the D.C. Statehood initiative. I'm afraid you've forgotten about the Voting Rights Amendment, and Sue Panzer thinks it's the fault of people like me.
"There's been almost no attention paid the Voting Rights Amendment in the past few years," she complained the other day, referring to the proposal (adopted by Congress in 1978) to alter the U.S. Constitution to give the District two full- fledged senators and two representatives.
"We hoped that once the Equal Rights Amendment was out of the way, we could get a little media attention for the Voting Rights Amendment. Instead, all the attention has gone to the statehood issue." Now that the drive for statehood has reached a plateau, she hopes we'll pay some attention to VRA.
It will need attention, and a lot of work besides, if it is to pass before the seven years allotted for state approval runs out. In the four years since D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy fought the amendment through Congress, only 10 states (of the 38 needed) have ratified it, the last being Oregon, 16 months ago.
Panzer believes that one of the reasons for the plodding pace, so reminiscent of what happened to the Equal Rights Amendment, is that District residents themselves have forgotten about VRA, or at least that they have been distracted by statehood.
She's probably right. Both VRA and statehood were proposed initially as ways of enhancing this city's limited home rule. For awhile, it was VRA that garnered most of the attention here. After Congress approved the amendment and a handful of states ratified it, the talk was of fund-raisers and national coalitions to make the big push for ratification.
Then, the statehood initiative (which the League opposed) made it to the ballot and won the approval of District voters, in November 1980. Since then, the talk has been of the proposed New Columbia Constitution, and the Voting Rights Amendment has drawn scarcely a murmur.
Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the media -- and the people -- haven't been able to focus simultaneously on two different approaches to solving essentially the same problem. But Sue Panzer thinks we ought to be trying.
It isn't an either/or question, she says. Not entirely, anyway. If statehood is approved -- and all it takes is a congressional majority; no need for individual states to ratify -- then the Voting Rights Amendment becomes a dead letter. Statehood alone would give the District what VRA offers -- voting representation in both houses -- and more besides.
But Panzer believes that congressional approval is a long way off and that it makes sense, meanwhile, for even statehood supporters to back the VRA. "If we got the Voting Rights Amendment and the people still wanted statehood, they would have four people up there (in Congress) to help get it," she says. "Besides, if we had voting representation in the Congress, the other members would give them more respect than they give a non-voting delegate." She sees the VRA -- and perhaps statehood as well -- as another important step in the long campaign for home rule.
"But nobody is willing to talk about the Voting Rights Amendment now," she says. "The politicians are afraid that endorsing VRA will be seen as opposition to statehood, when in fact, as Fauntroy has made clear, the two things are compatible.
"Virtually all the state legislatures will be in session early next year, and that's the time for us to make our big push, calling on our friends and colleagues in the various states to help us. But first we've got to surface the issue here.""