A committee of European and U.S. legislators gave an overwhelming show of support to residents of the District yesterday, calling upon Congress to give them a vote on the nation's laws.
The unusual vote came at an annual meeting of an international group that promotes democratic principles and human rights. While also voting on resolutions that support fighting human trafficking, sexual exploitation and religious oppression worldwide, a committee of the group backed a resolution calling for equal voting rights for 560,000 residents of the city hosting the conference. The full assembly is expected to endorse the resolution this week.
The resolution's sponsor, nonvoting U.S. House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), said she hoped the symbolic gesture by a mostly European organization would embarrass Congress into doing something about the lack of full representation for D.C. residents.
"It's very hard to be against voting rights in a democracy," she said. "Yes, when this country committed troops to Iraq, I had no vote. . . . The taxes paid to this war, I had no vote."
Of the nearly 60 legislators who voted yesterday in the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, three rejected Norton's resolution: Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), Canada's Dale Johnston and Denmark's Morten Messerschmidt. Of the six Republican and Democratic U.S. delegation members present, Voinovich was the only one who voted against it.
"I haven't paid much attention to it," he said after the vote, held on the second of a five-day conference at the J.W. Marriott hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. "I don't want to pin myself down . . . until I know more about the bills now in Congress and look into this more."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has 55 member countries, including those from Europe and the former Soviet Union, which formed with the goal of being a democratic conscience for Europe. This year, its president is U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), and Republican leaders of the House and Senate are the hosts of the conference. Twelve U.S. lawmakers, including Norton, serve in the organization's parliamentary assembly.
Republicans in the U.S. delegation who voted for Norton's resolution said they supported full voting rights for D.C. residents. One proposal in Congress would add a voting House member for the District and for Utah. Another would let D.C. residents vote for a representative in Maryland, an idea supported by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), co-chairman of the delegation.
"I have a lot of people on my staff who live in D.C., and they can't vote," Smith said. "A solution must be found."
Norton said that she appreciated the Republicans' efforts but that GOP leaders have blocked consideration of voting rights proposals. "None of the four bills now pending has a chance of passage in Congress," she said.
Though the voting rights resolution drew scores of demonstrators Friday urging its passage, the debate was over in less than two hours. The session yesterday focused largely on international resolutions about such problems as human trafficking and attacks on religious minorities. Several assembly members accused the United States of hypocrisy for promoting democracy around the world yet dismissing evidence that it has tortured prisoners in its fight against terrorism.
On the issue of D.C. voting rights, the two foreign legislators who voted against the idea said in interviews that the matter wasn't really the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's business.
"Congress is an autonomous body, and it's just a matter of time before they do something about this," Johnston said.
Said Messerschmidt: "It should be dealt with on Capitol Hill, not here."
Some foreign legislators said they were taken aback that not all Americans had the same rights.
"It surprises me in this nation's capital that talks so much about the right to vote and the need for democracy in other countries that they don't actually have that right to vote right here," said Carina Hagg, an assembly member from Sweden. "You have to realize that when you promote something, people will start to ask you to take a look at yourself."