Hurdles Remain For D.C. Voting Rights Measure

Eleanor Holmes Norton with Joseph Lieberman i i

hide captionConnecticut Sen. Joseph Liberman and Washington, D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton attend a news conference last week, after the Senate passed the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Eleanor Holmes Norton with Joseph Lieberman

Connecticut Sen. Joseph Liberman and Washington, D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton attend a news conference last week, after the Senate passed the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

For the first time in decades, voting rights advocates for Washington, D.C., have won a major victory in the Senate.

Last week, the chamber's Democratic majority revived and passed the D.C. voting rights bill. The bill would give District of Columbia residents a full voting seat in the U.S. House — if the measure can get all the way through Congress and a myriad of constitutional challenges.

The bill's sponsor, Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, said the move will right a longtime wrong.

"Six hundred thousand of our fellow Americans get taxed, get called to war, get regulated and supervised and everything else, and have no say here with a vote by the representative in the House of Representatives, and that is what this bill would do," he said.

But Sen. John Ensign of Nevada says the bill is "blatantly unconstitutional."

Republicans like Ensign — and even some Democrats who opposed the bill — all point to Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

"It says that the members of the House and the Senate shall be from the several states. And it was very specific that the District of Columbia is not to be a state," Ensign said.

But Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University, says that district voting advocates know the legislation will face a legal challenge — and that there is Supreme Court case law they can use in their favor.

"If the district can be treated as a state for hundreds of statutory and programmatic purposes and many constitutional purposes, why not the most fundamental purpose of all: representation in voting?"

But George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley says that argument won't hold against the fact that the District of Columbia is not a state.

"For constitutional scholars, this bill is like watching a very slow car crash happen, where Congress is ignoring all the constitutional signs that this is not an avenue for receiving this time of relief," Turley said.

Turley says Congress would be setting a dangerous precedent for not just the district, but for U.S. territories and other non-states by redefining what a voting member is.

"That is not just destabilizing for the system, it's dangerous. It means that the Congress could create new members and manipulate its voting rolls. That's never been done in the history of this republic," Turley said.

Lawmakers concede that the issue will likely end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. The bill even includes a provision that asks for a speedy judicial review.

That's just fine with district Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

"Nobody wanted this to linger in the court for years, so we didn't see any harm in that," she said.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is striking a cautious tone, noting that the bill is in no way a done deal.

"Knowing we still have a House vote and still have a conference, we are not taking anything for granted. But sometimes momentum is realized in just how far we've come and how many obstacles have been overturned," he said.

The House version, like the Senate's, adds two seats: one for the district, which leans Democratic, and one for Utah, which leans Republican. But the two bills do it slightly differently.

And the Senate added an amendment that would roll back D.C.'s gun restrictions, potentially undermining some support among Democrats.

So for now, voters in the district don't have to worry about changing their license plates just yet. (Car tags in the nation's capital carry the motto, "Taxation without representation.")



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: