For millions of Americans, the Capitol building is a beacon of freedom, the epitome of liberty and equality. Yet, for District residents, this domed edifice represents the unattainable – and just another building they pass on their way to work.
D.C. residents, burdened with the same responsibilities as every American citizen, are unique in that they do not have voting representation in a building many can see from their homes.
Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the District’s representative, has fought to change the status quo for her constituents. This year she introduced a bill granting District residents full voting representation in Congress with the creation of two seats in the Senate and one in the House. The measure is unlikely to pass.
The complete lack of representation in the Senate also limits D.C. citizens’ influence in Congress. District residents are also the only Americans subject to federal taxation who are not represented in Congress.
Like a decimated army struggling to battle after a series of defeats, voting rights advocates are having a difficult time galvanizing resident support.
“I think D.C. residents live with the outrages of voting representation daily,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, an organization aggressively campaigning for the passage of Norton’s bill. “I think most D.C. residents are just tired. They’re tired of thinking about and dealing with these issues.”
Loree Murray, 82, a resident of northeast D.C., has been fighting in vain for voting rights since she graduated from high school in 1939.
“Some days I just feel like giving up,” said Murray, a sense of futility permeating her every word. “But I have great-grandchildren, and some day down the line I hope someone will listen to them. We have feelings.”
Murray said that in 1960 she participated in demonstrations calling on Congress to pass a 23rd Amendment that would give District residents full voting representation in Congress and the right to vote in presidential elections.
While there was little resistance to the presidential voting rights provision, Republicans were adamantly against congressional representation for District residents. A compromise was reached and congressional representation was taken out of the bill. The bill passed both houses (to become a law, an amendment must pass by a two-thirds majority in both houses and must be ratified by three-fourths of the states).
“The Democrats got support on the presidential voting rights from everyone, even the Republicans,” said Dr. Mark David Richards, a political sociologist who has spent five years documenting and researching District residents’ struggle to attain voting rights and self-government. “But Republicans weren’t going to give a majority black area the right to have two black senators and a black representative.”
After the passage of the bill in both houses, District residents launched a nationwide campaign advocating its ratification in the states.
“They went all over the country trying to get this bill passed,” said Murray.
In less than a year, the amendment was ratified by 39 states – one more than necessary for an amendment to become a law. With the exception of Tennessee, every southern state rejected the amendment.
Murray said she was disappointed that the amendment did not pass intact and spurned the Republicans who blocked the congressional representation provision.
“They called (Washington) the capital of the free world, but we weren’t free,” Murray said. “We still aren’t.”
Following the amendment’s passage, District residents pressed for further legislation, and in 1970, Congress passed a bill creating a non-voting delegate to represent the District in the House. Walter Fauntroy, a civil rights activist, became Washington’s first representative in Congress in almost a hundred years.
Fauntroy, who would serve 10 terms as a delegate, spearheaded an effort in 1978 to pass an amendment granting District citizens full voting representation in Congress.
With the support of key Republican senators, including Robert Dole and Howard Baker, the amendment passed both houses.
“With the ’78 amendment, they had bipartisan support; they had the help of moderate Republicans,’ Richards said. “They believed in the federal system and what the country’s all about.”
Although the amendment passed both houses, it still needed to be ratified by three-fourths of the states, and by August 1985 – the deadline for states to ratify the amendment – only 16 states had approved it.
Richards attributes the amendment’s failure to a lack of awareness in the states.
“Getting the bill passed by both houses of Congress was a huge, huge accomplishment,” Richards said. “But, on the other hand, D.C. was not organized to go in the states and wage a campaign to gain the support of states, and the conservatives came out and they just slammed it.”
Kevin Kiger, communications director for D.C. Vote, said the amendment’s failure stemmed from Southern states’ refusal to grant a primarily black area voting rights.
“No one wanted to come right out and say that they didn’t want to see D.C., which was 60 percent black, represented by what would’ve probably been black senators and representatives,” Kiger said. “But it’s pretty clear that race played a role in this.”
In 1993, the Democrat-controlled House, prodded by the newly-elected Norton, granted delegates from the territories the right to vote on the House floor, as long as their votes didn’t change the outcome. In 1994, Republicans displaced the Democrats as the majority party in the House, and the delegates’ right to vote on the House floor was rescinded.
In 2000, the Supreme Court affirmed a federal court’s ruling that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee District residents voting representation in Congress.
Walter A. Smith Jr., one of the lawyers who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court, said the Court’s ruling paves the way for Congress to pass Norton’s latest bill.
“The Court ended up taking a middle ground,” Smith said. “The decision from the Court actually said there was no justification for not giving D.C. citizens voting rights, but the justices they weren’t the ones to do it. They said that we should go to the Hill.”
Norton’s bill to grant District voting rights is currently stalled in a House committee.