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Could the U.N. Help D.C. Win a Vote in Congress?

Raising the profile of the District’s struggle to win voting rights in Congress to the international level could create some interesting geopolitical dynamics.

Imagine Chinese President Xi Jinping denouncing D.C.’s disenfranchisement in Congress as a human rights violation. Picture Russian President Vladimir Putin lecturing the White House for denying voting representation to citizens in the nation’s capital.

“I don’t want to encourage anybody to poke a stick in our eye in the United States, but the reality is, I think we have some vulnerability on that and there are groups that are eager to find some chink in the United States’ armor,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., during a recent symposium on congressional representation for D.C. residents hosted by the William & Mary Election Law Program.

Davis believes that launching an international dialogue on the issue could be helpful in pressing it forward politically. As one of the staunchest allies the District has ever had in Congress, Davis repeatedly defended the city during his 14 years in Congress and pushed legislation to give the District a vote in the House.

“This is the capital of the free world, and we were spending really, literally billions of dollars to bring democracy to faraway places like Baghdad, Kabul, and here in the nation’s capital this was just a crying deficiency overlooked by the Founding Fathers,” he said Friday.

That logic couldn’t convince Capitol Hill to make Davis’s legislation into law, but he believes it is possible to restart the debate with some added pressure from outside groups.

Bob Bauer, an election law expert and former counsel to President Barack Obama, agreed the fight could be re-energized by a new bipartisan conversation on voting rights, but is a bit wary of international involvement.

Having the United States “on the receiving end of denunciations or lectures from the Chinese government is going to stiffen some resistance in some corners of the United States,” he said in response to an audience question. “That moves you into a very dangerous zone,” Bauer added, warning the debate could fall into a “dreadful rhetorical downslide.”

Bauer believes change will come when people learn to take voting rights more seriously. He’s spent plenty of time focused on the matter. In 2013, Obama named him to serve as co-chair of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, where he has focused on voter identification requirements and amendments to the Voting Rights Act.

“Voting rights is actually a significant topic of debate on the policy and constitutional level in this country — people are talking about it,” he said, adding that he was not “wildly optimistic” that D.C. would be brought into the conversation.

In 2006, the District’s lack of voting representation in Congress was decried by a United Nations commission as a violation of human rights. That report, which called on Congress to rectify the situation, wasn’t enough to change policy.

Davis said the District’s disenfranchisement remains an injustice and a “glaring splotch on our reputation internationally.”

Others present for the conversation suggested that the District might be able to learn some lessons from the fight to expand marriage rights to same-sex couples. Both Bauer and Davis agreed that gay rights had a broader reach than D.C. voting rights, which would affect only the District’s 630,000 residents.

Still, Davis believes there are compelling arguments that could help put a face on the movement and attract more media attention.

District residents fight and die in every war, D.C. citizens are drafted, and people here “pay income taxes like everybody else,” he pointed out.

“The facts are clear,” he said. Now, the fight “needs to be hit from multiple areas.”

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