While lawmakers are preparing to tweak the D.C. voting rights bill by revising the language dealing with a new seat for Utah, opponents argue that doing so will only create more problems for a measure already plagued with constitutional concerns.
The D.C. Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act would grant the Democratic-leaning District of Columbia a full House vote while balancing that with a fourth Congressional seat for largely Republican Utah. But D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and others likely will rewrite the bill to give Utah an at-large seat instead, which they argue would create fewer logistical problems when it comes time to enact the measure.
“There was concern that the change to the new Utah Congressional map might cause all current Members to have to run again in a special election, contrary to the intent of the statute and all concerned, especially since elections have just been held,” said Doxie McCoy, a spokeswoman for Norton, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).
(A special election would still need to be held for the new Utah and D.C. seats.)
But not everyone is happy with the decision to throw out the proposed Utah map in favor of an at-large seat. One source closely involved with the bill said returning to the original language is only delaying the process of moving the legislation forward.
“I think we’re just going to lose very valuable time,” the source said.
Legislators in Utah also might be upset, as they met in special session last year to approve a new Congressional map.
Then there’s the issue of constitutionality.
“Tweaking the Utah portion of the bill falls in the category of moving chairs around on the deck of the Titanic,” said Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar at The George Washington University who testified last year that the Norton-Davis bill already is unconstitutional.
If the at-large portion goes through, courts might decide it goes against the doctrine of “one-man, one-vote,” Turley said. But that could just be the beginning of problems for the measure, he said.
“I’m surprised that it has even remained a possibility this long. Academics are pretty uniform in view of this,” Turley said. “This is not a close call.”
When Norton and Davis originally introduced the measure in the 109th Congress, it gave Utah an at-large seat, based on the notion the Beehive State had just missed getting another Representative following the 2000 Census.
After passing the Government Reform Committee (then headed by Davis), the bill made its way to the Judiciary Committee, where then-Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) worried about the constitutional implications of an at-large seat, through which residents of the state would be represented by the at-large Member as well as a holder of one of the three regular districts. So, the Utah Legislature worked in special session to approve a new Congressional map providing for a fourth district that protects the three Representatives who had just been re-elected.
It all might have been in vain, Turley said.
The Constitution only allows states to have representation in Congress, and therefore the legislative branch simply doesn’t have the authority to give the District a vote, he said. And on a more political level, the bill likely will only serve to harm Democrats, he added.
“They could face the prospect of adding an electoral vote to Utah, which could turn a presidential election, while the District portion could be struck down as unconstitutional,” he said.
Voting rights supporters maintain there is little precedent for the bill to begin with. But what is out there will work to uphold the constitutionality of the measure, as Congress has treated the District as if it were a state with things such as the Commerce Clause and diversity jurisdiction, and thus has the authority to grant the District a vote.
Looking ahead, supporters remain optimistic that the bill will be addressed soon. No hearing has been scheduled yet for the bill, which currently sits in the Judiciary Committee.
“It’s on the agenda, but I believe the details of the scheduling are still being worked out,” said Melanie Roussell, a spokeswoman for the committee, whose chairman, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), has pledged his support for D.C. voting rights.
Davis, who is ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is optimistic the bill will advance, according to a spokesman.
“Based on conversations that he has had with Chairman [Henry] Waxman (D-Calif.), he remains very confident that the legislation will move, and move soon,” spokesman David Marin said.
Advocates will continue to hit Capitol Hill to lobby for the measure. D.C. residents recently lobbied for the bill, and supporters will host a march and rally on April 16 — D.C. Emancipation Day — to push Congress to take up the measure.
“Our goal is to move the bill forward and have it enacted into law by the spring,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of advocacy group DC Vote.