D.C. Voting Rights Supporters Have Best Shot Yet With Obama in the White House

Two bills introduced this week would give D.C. the right to a vote in Congress.


It is a feeling so widely shared in the District of Columbia, it's on the city's license plates. Beneath the words "Washington, D.C.," in big, bold, blue letters, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles has printed the phrase, "Taxation without representation."

John Adams couldn't have put it any better. Since the district's founding more than 200 years ago, the residents of the nation's capital, in an ironic twist that infuriates voters and city leaders alike, have had no vote in Congress. The city's lone representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, is allowed to participate in debate and craft legislation, but she is prohibited by the Constitution from casting a vote on the House floor.

Unlike voters in every other state, the district's nearly 600,000 residents—a population larger than the state of Wyoming, and only slightly smaller than Alaska, North Dakota, and Vermont—also live under the direct authority of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who oversee the city's budget and have the power to annul laws passed by the city government.

"It's extremely frustrating," Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP and a longtime Washington resident, said in an interview this fall. "I don't think most Americans know that we don't have full voting rights here. When I travel and talk to people about it, they say, 'Gee, I didn't know that.' We who live here know it and feel it very strongly."

Those feelings may finally be turning into political action. After decades of failed attempts to bring voting rights to D.C.—efforts that have been repeatedly foiled by Republicans with little desire to see one of the bluest cities in the country hand another seat to Democrats—two bills were introduced this week in the House and Senate that could give D.C. citizens their best chance ever to win the right to a vote in Congress.

The D.C. House Voting Rights Act, which is sponsored in the House by Norton and cosponsored in the Senate by Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman and Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, would add two new seats to the House of Representatives. One would go to Democratic-leaning D.C., while the other would go to Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed getting an additional seat after the last census.

Experts say this political compromise, which pleases partisans on both sides of the aisle, has a strong chance of passing. In 2007, similarly worded legislation made it through the House, but came up three votes short of the filibuster-proof majority needed to end debate in the Senate. Many Republicans were opposed to the measure, as they have been for years, saying a constitutional amendment would be necessary to award a congressional seat to D.C. The Constitution only grants voting rights to states, but legal experts believe Congress, as the sole authority over D.C., has the power to give the District voting representation.

With Barack Obama, a longtime supporter of D.C. voting rights—and cosponsor of the '07 bill—about to move into the White House and with Democrats gaining at least seven more seats in the Senate, analysts say the political pieces are falling into place: D.C. is poised, at long last, to balance the taxes its voters pay with some representation.

None too soon, say many D.C. residents, who haven't had a vote in Congress since 1800. That was the year the District of Columbia was established as the seat of government, sending its voters into political purgatory. Because the district was not a state, residents lost their right to elect a representative. But because they lived in a federal district, they were also directly governed by that same Congress. Until 1961, D.C. voters weren't even allowed to cast ballots in presidential elections.

"People live with this every day, and they're upset about it," says Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, an advocacy group that pushed the city council to print "taxation without representation" on D.C. license plates in 2000. "Most people who oppose it now just do so for political reasons. The constitutional arguments are just a smokescreen."