Residents of Washington DC edge closer to full voting rights


AMERICA:The Senate approved an Act which would give the District of Columbia one vote in the House, writes DENIS STAUNTON.

THEY PAY federal taxes, serve in the military and live within the shadow of the Capitol dome but residents of Washington DC are unlike other Americans in one important respect – they have no influence over legislation in Congress. The District of Columbia is not a state but a “federal district” and its 600,000 citizens have never had a senator or a voting member of the House of Representatives.

That could be about to change after the Senate this week approved the DC Voting Rights Act, which would give the district one vote in the House. Because the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, Republican-leaning Utah would gain an extra congressional seat.

“This day represents great momentum toward full voting rights,” DC mayor Adrian Fenty said after Thursday’s vote.

Until 1961, Washingtonians were not even allowed to vote in presidential elections but the district’s demands for more democratic representation have become louder in recent years and since 2000, the city’s car licence plates have carried the message Taxation without Representation.

In 1971, Congress allowed DC to send a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, a position currently held by Eleanor Holmes Norton but until now, efforts to give the district full voting rights have failed to win enough support.

Three years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that DC’s lack of voting rights violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by denying the district’s citizens the right to universal and equal suffrage.

Now, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a new president who is willing to sign the Bill into law, voting rights advocates are confident that the legislation passed this week will make its way on to the statute books.

Even if the Bill becomes law, however, it could be declared unconstitutional by the supreme court because the US constitution states that members of the House of Representatives should be chosen “by the people of the several states” – and DC is not a state.

DC’s champions argue that the constitutional definition of statehood is vague and that the district is treated as a state in matters such as taxation and interstate commerce.

The voting rights legislation could run into trouble even sooner on account of a Republican-sponsored amendment to the Senate Bill that would overturn DC’s gun control laws, including the city’s ban on semi-automatic weapons.

After 186 murders last year alone, few Washingtonians believe their city needs more guns and Democrats hope to remove the pro-gun amendment before the Bill reaches President Barack Obama’s desk.

Some activists complain that, even if the voting rights Bill becomes law, it will do little to diminish the democratic deficit in the district, where the city government’s decisions can be overturned by Congress.

During the 1990s, Congress appointed a financial control board that effectively took over the economic management of the city, offering tax breaks to business, privatising public services and encouraging gentrification.

Campaigners for statehood point out that the district has the highest rate of HIV infection in the United States – almost 10 times the national average – and that federal legislators have forbidden the city from spending money on needle-exchange programmes that could inhibit the spread of the disease.

Life expectancy in DC is lower than in the 50 states and a 2006 Harvard study found that the city’s residents had the same chance of reaching old age as people living on the Gaza Strip.

Those outside the district point out that the federal government funds one-third of the city’s budget, suggesting that many of Washington’s problems are caused by poor administration at a local level.

Welcoming Thursday’s vote, Holmes Norton played down potential problems and disagreements ahead as she celebrated a breakthrough in a struggle that has already lasted more than 200 years.

“When this Bill becomes law shortly, it will mark the first time since the city was established that the Congress shall have conferred voting rights on the residents of the District of Columbia by act of Congress,” she said.

“The toughest part of this Bill was accomplished today in the Senate with a 61-vote victory.

“Yet, there were tough anti-home rule battles today, and we are ready for the tough battles ahead.”