City on a Hill: D.C., the suffrage-free city

November 13, 2008

The election of Barack Obama (D) and the gains made by Democrats in Congress bode well for those fighting for voting rights for the District of Columbia. However, last week’s election is by no means a guarantee of voting rights-much work and a little luck is still needed before the District realizes its dream of enfranchisement.

Given that Obama was a co-sponsor of 2007’s District of Columbia Voting Rights Act (the bill that would have given D.C. a vote in the House, but fell three votes short of the 60 needed to pass in the Senate), his win over Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed the bill, is particularly encouraging for voting rights advocates. With Democrats picking up six seats in the Senate (or more, depending on how the races in Alaska and Georgia turn out), the bill should have at least 63 supporters, assuming the newly elected Democrats toe the party line and the Republicans who voted for it haven’t changed their minds.

This is an ideal situation for voting rights, but D.C. has squandered similar opportunities in the past by pushing for too much too soon.  In 1993, with President Bill Clinton in office and a Democrat-controlled Congress, D.C.’s non-voting Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) introduced a bill that would have given D.C. full statehood, but it was voted down in the House, 153 to 277.

Ilir Zherka, Director of D.C. Vote, a non-profit organization that advocates for voting rights, says D.C. has learned its lesson.  According to Zherka, a new bill would probably closely resemble the 2007 one, a very modest proposal that provides only for a voting representative in the House whose predicted liberal leanings would be counterbalanced by giving another Representative to the conservative state of Utah.

“We are determined not to fail,” Zherka said.  “Our organization doesn’t think that now is the time to push for full democracy … We are intent on doing that but we are also realistic. I think we need to take it one fight at a time.  The current fight is a vote in the House.”

But even if the District resists the urge to overreach and takes a more gradual approach, there’s a risk the issue of D.C. voting rights won’t get the attention it needs since Congress has other major problems-the economic meltdown, wars abroad, and fixing the healthcare system-to address.  The onus is on local activists and Rep. Norton to keep D.C.’s disenfranchisement at the forefront of Congress’ collective conscious by educating new members of the legislature and aggressively pushing for a bill soon after Obama takes office.

The struggle for voting rights and real democratic representation for D.C. shows that the fight can’t end on election night.  D.C. residents need to maintain the enthusiasm they showed when 93 percent  of registered voters voted for Obama and apply it to the fight against this persistent injustice.  Obama’s election is indeed a milestone for our country, but we shouldn’t assume that other advances will follow automatically. Instead, we should move forward with optimism, a healthy amount of caution, and above all, dedication to the dream of enfranchisement and true democracy.

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