D.C. Still Fighting for Right to Vote

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Last week, the U.S. Congress passed a bill giving the District of Columbia its first full seat in the House. James Wright, staff writer for the Afro-American newspaper, talks about the history of legislation on this issue and D.C.'s crusade to gain voting rights.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

But now, Washington D.C. is one step closer to getting a full voting seat in Congress. Right now the District only gets a non-voting representative. Last week, the House passed a bill to change that. It would give voting rights to mostly Democratic D.C., balanced against an additional seat for Utah, traditionally a Republican state.

Critics say the bill is unconstitutional and it's not at all clear that the Senate will support it. Supporters argue the District deserves a voting seat. Its residents pay taxes and serve in the military.

What do you think? Whether you're from Washington D.C., have ever lived here or not, do you think the nation's capital should have voting rights? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We're joined now by James Wright. He's a reporter for the Afro-American newspaper in Washington D.C. and he joins us here at Studio 3A.

Thanks for coming in.

Mr. JAMES WRIGHT (Reporter, Afro-American newspaper): Thank you. No problem.

ROBERTS: Do you still get a surprised reaction from people, especially outside Washington when you tell them that D.C. residents do not have a vote?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. I mean, there is a widespread perception that the people of D.C. have a voting member of Congress. I mean, many of them know that there's not a senator, but they expect a voting member of Congress. And when you tell them there's not, it's like, huh. And, you know, they're just flabbergasted.

ROBERTS: So for those in our audience who may have just had that same reaction give us a little bit of the history. What was the rationale behind not giving D.C. a member of Congress.

Mr. WRIGHT: It's a very interesting history. When the founding fathers got together for their Constitutional Convention, there was a concern that this nation's capital would be politicized. And keep in mind the times we're talking about. London was a very political town in England - and particularly, particularly Paris.

ROBERTS: Yeah.

Mr. WRIGHT: So the feeling was that if we were going to have a nation's capital, it would just be a federal city that dealt with only federal issues. That's why - one of the main reasons it was moved from Philadelphia to here. But what happens, as it always happens with cities, it grows. And as you - as many people have pointed Maryland gave property, Virginia gave property - even though Virginia gave theirs back in the 1840s.

The point is the city grew. And all types of people started coming in and it developed a character of its own.

ROBERTS: And what does the constitution say about it?

Mr. WRIGHT: The constitution is not as straight forward as people would like for it to be. You have Article 1 Section 2, which says that the members of the House should choose - the people of several states should choose members of the House. It doesn't say specifically that the District does not - is not entitled to representation. But the tradition is is that if it's not a state, it doesn't get representation in Congress.

ROBERTS: So that's one of the arguments against it. What are some of the other?

Mr. WRIGHT: Other arguments against it?

ROBERTS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, basically you also have an argument that the state is too small.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: I don't know what that means. And you also have a question that the population is too small, even though right now I think the District has more people than one state. And there are some darker arguments that say that the population is too urban, too inner city, but…

ROBERTS: Is that code for black, do you think?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. And - but those are arguments that are made.

ROBERTS: And so why has this bill that's passed the house gotten further than other efforts?

Mr. WRIGHT: I think because you have Tom Davis, who is a credible Republican, has…

ROBERTS: Congressman from Virginia.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. Has teamed up with Eleanor Holmes Norton and they've worked through this process. And the fact that you have - we get a vote here, Utah gets a vote. It's a trade off. And plus, it does increase the number of the House of Representatives. So I think this is what makes people comfortable.

ROBERTS: And just to clarify - in case this is news to people - we, residents of D.C., can vote for president. We vote for our own mayor. It's just that our delegate in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, at the moment, does not vote in the House of Representatives, and we have no representation in the Senate.

Let's take a call from Sam in Mesa. I'm sorry, this is Joanne in Wichita. Joanne, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOANNE (Caller): Hi there. I'm wondering about - number one, why Utah is getting the vote? I guess I'd like that explained more. But most of all, I'm embarrassed to say being raised in private schools that I didn't realize until recently that D.C. didn't have their own representative. And I've heard forever about their poor schools and their high rates of poverty, and I think it's really appalling, as a nation, and shame on our government that they haven't had a vote, and better protection and more representation. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Joanne, thanks for your call. So we should explain about the Utah vote.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, what happened was is that Utah was supposed to get an additional representative in the 2000 census, but they missed it by a few thousand residents. And, you know, the GOP didn't like that. So Tom Davis stepped in, and Eleanor Holmes Norton agreed with it, after some persuasion, that Utah would get an additional seat if the district gets a vote - political compromise.

ROBERTS: Yeah, a likely Democratic seat and a likely Republican seat. Now here's Sam in Mesa. Sam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SAM (Caller): Hello?

ROBERTS: Hi, Sam.

SAM: Hi. My comment was just that - well, I think when the founding fathers laid down the constitution as it was, they didn't really envision a lot of people living in D.C. I think they thought that it was more going to be a sort of a place for lawmakers to go, and I think it's actually kind of sad that the people living in D.C. that are closest to our nation's capital don't have a vote in Congress. I think they really ought to.

ROBERTS: Sam, thanks for your call. Do you think that's true, James Wright, that it was originally envisioned as a city that just had government workers and not a real permanent population?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. Yes, I totally agree with the caller, and people have to remember that our constitution is not - it's organic, it's ever-changing. You have people who call themselves strict constructionists. But it's a changing document because you have changing times. And this is what the wisdom of the founding fathers did. That's why they set up the amendment process, because they know times are going to change, and I think this situation would apply.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from - this is David in Murdo, South Dakota. David, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVID (Caller): Well, it's my personal belief that the constitution is being changed frivolously, and it's not necessary to make this particular change and the other changes, especially when they have something to do with political -well, Democrat versus Republican.

ROBERTS: David, thanks for your call. We should clarify. This would not be a change to the constitution.

Mr. WRIGHT: Right.

ROBERTS: There was a court ruling recently that said this is actually just an act of Congress. It doesn't require constitutional amendment.

Mr. WRIGHT: And that's very important because as you well know in 1978, there was an effort to try to get the three-fourths of the states to accept D.C. to have voting representation. And I believe, as a state, that failed. So because of the court ruling, all they had to do is just have an act of Congress, as you said.

ROBERTS: And this is sort of one step of voting representative in Congress. There are some fear on the part of critics, hope on the part of states' rights advocates, that this is one step towards D.C. actually becoming a state. Do you see any prospects for that?

Mr. WRIGHT: I'm an optimist. I really see prospects for that because I think that as people become more educated by the fact that district residents pay taxes and go to fight wars and are citizens and that sort of thing, they will realize hey, these folks deserve representation in the House and in the Senate.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Jeff in Kansas City. Jeff, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JEFF (Caller): Hello?

ROBERTS: Hi, Jeff, you're on the air.

JEFF: Yeah, I'm kind of on the opposite. I don't think they should be allowed to vote as a city. I think instead of doing that, they should just redraw the state line and divide D.C. up, half in Virginia, half in Maryland and let them vote as a resident of those states.

ROBERTS: Jeff, thanks for your call. Why wasn't that - why wasn't D.C. originally part of D.C. or Maryland? What was the impetus behind making it its own district?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, there was a belief that if it was a part of a state, that state would get so much preferential treatment in terms of federal money, et cetera, that there would be - you know, it would be an imbalance, and it would be unfair, and then there's the question of the Mason-Dixon line, whether the North would have more power, whether the South would have more power. And the gentleman is talking about retrocession, and Maryland does not want it, D.C. does not want it, and only people in the far right want it. That's a very small group itself.

ROBERTS: Although it should be said in the history of D.C., part of it used to be carved from Virginia, and that was given back to Virginia 150 years ago now.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes it was. Yes it was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Eli in Walla Walla, Washington. Eli, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ELI (Caller): Hi, can you hear me?

ROBERTS: We can.

ELI: Yes, well - yeah, I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I'm a native, and I've since moved out to Walla Walla, Washington. And I just like to share a personal experience that I think it's a shame, and it's pretty ridiculous in my mind that I had to move all the way out to Washington State to get the rights that every other American outside of Washington, D.C. has. And for all of those who are concerned about what the exact tactic is for how we get representation in the district - both in the Senate and the House - I would just urge you to try and imagine paying your taxes, sending your kids to war like me, signing up for the draft and knowing that when you're growing up no one that you vote for has a vote in all those decisions. And that regardless of how we do it, it needs to be done. And so the question needs to be what's the best way and can we move forward?

ROBERTS: And Eli, growing up here, did you think of it as an injustice, or was it just sort of the way government worked?

ELI: I - in high school, I became more aware of the inequality and started lobbying. I remember meeting with Senator Paul Wellstone - a number of students and I from Wilson High School - went and met with Senator Paul Wellstone. And we were like, you know, Mr. Wellstone, we'd very much like representation. And he said, I think you should be a state. Unfortunately, such a good champion is no longer around. But I think there are people in D.C., many of them, who understand the inequality. A lot of people are used to it, but it's - by no means do they accept it.

ROBERTS: Eli, thanks for your call. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we should talk about the prospects for this bill because it has passed the House, which is something. That hasn't happened in a long time. Not necessarily clear sailing in the Senate.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes, the problem in the Senate is the fact that - and this is what I believe, Rebecca. If you really had a straight-down vote, it would probably pass, maybe 53 to 47 or 54-55. The problem is is that, and you know this, in order to do anything in the Senate, you have to have 60 votes. And I don't think advocates of this bill have 60 votes at this time. I really think they need to talk to moderate Republicans and particularly Orrin Hatch, and if Orrin Hatch gets behind this bill fully…

ROBERTS: The senator from Utah.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, senator from Utah, its prospects will greatly enhance.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Danielle in Indiana. Danielle, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DANIELLE (Caller): Hi, thank you. I am currently in Indiana. I'm a military brat. I have lived all over the country. And Washington, D.C., I've been in that area for about eight years of my life, and I am (unintelligible) to my roots there, and I'm thinking about my younger siblings, my parents who've been in the military for 20-plus years, my siblings who are going to be in the northern Virginia and southern Washington, D.C. school systems and just how this is going to affect them, how this is going to affect their life, how it has affected mine and my education as far as inconsistency, part of it being in Washington, D.C., and it just is really frustrating, really disconcerting.

I feel like it's an incredible dishonor, not only to our soldiers, but also to the vast majority of minority groups that we have in Washington, D.C. So I just can't believe that this would be considered acceptable. After 200-plus years of being a nation, how this hasn't been dealt with, and only it's just now starting to actually make a little bit of headway, which quite frankly might get shut down.

ROBERTS: Danielle, thanks for your call. You know, the point that D.C. residents serve in the military - pay their taxes, but also serve in the military, has been made a lot in this fight. Do you think that the fact that we are, at the moment, in a war and people are paying attention to military service has helped get this bill a little further along?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes it has, and you have many district residents throughout the years who have served honorably in the military, and the fact that this is just a great injustice to many people because of that.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from John in Tallahassee. John, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHN (Caller): Hey. Well, Orrin Hatch is not going to be for this because Orrin Hatch is a Republican, and he knows that this is a Democratic ploy to increase their numbers. He knows that Utah is going to get its own representative when the next census comes around. So doing it a little bit sooner and then opening up the door for them to do an end-run around the way the founding fathers set it up is not what Orrin Hatch is all about.

The reason it doesn't have a representative is very simple - it is not a state. It is a city, and you don't give cities representatives. If you did, New York would have its own representative, Atlanta would have its own representative.

ROBERTS: So John, would you be in favor of making it a state?

JOHN: No, it's - the whole reason that they left it out in the first place was precisely the reason that was kind of dismissed by your guest there, and that is that imagine the representative there is going to be the super-representative. And make no mistake about it, if you give them a representative, then they're going to start saying well, we need a senator, too. We need to have two senators because we're a state.

So who's not going to listen to the two senators from the very state of which the capital is held in? As it is, the District of Columbia gets more money per capita than just about any other city. It's a super-city. The subways there are the envy of the United States. Even the stuff that's underground is just phenomenal. So it's outrageous. The whole thing is just political duck soup. It's silly.

ROBERTS: John, thanks for your call. It's interesting that people feel pretty strongly on both sides of this issue, even if they don't live in D.C. and it doesn't affect them personally.

Mr. WRIGHT: And it does, and one of the unfortunate things is that it is falling on - and I say this again unfortunately - along political lines. You know, it's interesting, Rebecca, because if you go back 40 or 50 years, Dwight Eisenhower supported a congressional representation in the Congress. You had Republicans, such as (unintelligible) of Tennessee, who worked - I mean, he didn't work for statehood, but he worked for political representation in the city and in the Congress with Lyndon Johnson. So that's why it's so unfortunate it has become a partisan issue.

ROBERTS: And so do you think if it's possible that it gets through the Senate, the president will veto it?

Mr. WRIGHT: I think President Bush will veto it because the people around him are telling him to veto it because it's unconstitutional even though, you know, that is murky waters itself.

ROBERTS: James Wright is a reporter with the Afro-American Newspaper here in Washington. He joined us in Studio 3A. Thanks so much, James.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you.

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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