The Vote Starts Here

D.C. Voting-Rights Advocates Discuss How to Spread the Word

Posted March 5, 2003 at 3:44pm

The D.C. City Council recently moved to generate attention to the District’s lack of Congressional representation by passing a bill that would make the city’s presidential primary the first in the nation.

But just in case that effort fails to grab the country’s attention, Congressional voting-rights advocates have a seemingly endless supply of proposals.

For instance, should Major League Baseball return to the District, the group Grand Slam D.C. has suggested requiring advertising in the stadium to publicize the District’s status, as well as creating similar patches for players to sport on their uniforms.

And, of course, there are the smaller-scale efforts suggested by some residents, such as marking dollar bills with the phrase “No Taxation Without Representation,” a rallying cry often used by voting-rights advocates.

These ideas, along with scores of others, were put forth during a town hall-style meeting on voting rights Tuesday night at the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library, organized by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), along with Mayor Anthony Williams (D), the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, D.C. Vote and Stand Up for Democracy.

The meeting formally launched a new national campaign to draw attention to the District’s status in Congress, as well as pressure sitting Members of Congress to address the subject. The District is represented by a Delegate in the House (who is permitted to vote in committee but not in the Committee of the Whole) but does not have representation in the Senate.

“We are going to form a network that will help us advocate and educate Members through their constituencies back home,” said Wade Henderson, executive director of the civil rights conference, which serves as an umbrella organization for 180 groups nationwide.

Locally, the organizations will sponsor D.C. Voting Rights Day on April 15 and a bike parade on Flag Day, and plan to host a press conference featuring District residents who are military veterans.

D.C. Vote, a nonprofit that promotes Congressional representation for the District, is also planning to create an “Adopt a Member” program.

“We don’t have voting representation in Congress, but there are plenty of people here who moved here from other places, and we want them to re-adopt their former Members of Congress,” said Ilir Zherka, the group’s executive director. “The idea is to function as constituents and to demand that folks view them as constituents. To make the point that, ‘We lived once in your state or your district. We’re tied to those places. We don’t have a voice, we want you to be our voice.’”

In addition, the groups will seek the assistance of public relations and advertising agencies to create ad campaigns for use on the Internet or television stations.

“You’ve got to hit the airwaves,” Norton said. “You can’t get people to vote for voting rights who live in D.C., they’re the ones who need voting rights, so you’ve got to find a way to get to the folks that can make it happen.”

The national campaign aims to generate support which failed to appear in 1978 when Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have given the District full voting representation. That bill died in 1985, when only 16 of the necessary 38 states ratified it.

Advocates also hope the D.C. City Council’s unanimous approval Tuesday to move the District’s presidential primary to Jan. 13 will create debate within Congress.

D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss (D), a locally elected official who lobbies for Congressional representation and statehood, said the effort could be successful even if the national Democratic Party sanctions the District by limiting the number of District delegates allowed at the national convention.

“Whether or not the delegates that are elected in that primary will be seated, I don’t know, … but I am as excited about the prospect of a floor fight as I am about being seated as a superdelegate,” Strauss said.

Shadow Rep. Ray Browne (D) will also continue his campaign, urging governors, state legislatures and city councils to adopt resolutions stating their support for Congressional representation for the District.

For now, activists plan to focus on obtaining seats in the House and Senate, although several noted that will serve as a building block in the push for statehood for the District.

“We’re going for voting rights on the way to statehood,” Norton said.