Residents rally for voting rights

More than 300 people gathered in Freedom Plaza Tuesday afternoon to protest District residents’ lack of voting representation in Congress.

The D.C. Voting Rights Rally, sponsored by D.C. Vote, an organization campaigning for District voting rights, featured several prominent District politicians including Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Mayor Anthony Williams.

The rally coincided with the April 15 deadline for Americans to turn in their federal tax forms, underscoring the fact that District residents are subject to federal taxation even though they are not represented in Congress. Officials at the event also formally announced that Washington would hold the first Democratic presidential primary for the 2004 election.

The crowd, a mix of young and old residents, chanted “Let D.C. Vote,” their rallying cries resonating throughout the plaza.

“We are not here to beg for a vote in the House and the Senate,” said Norton, her hand pointing defiantly at the Capitol. “We are here to demand our right for a vote in the House and the Senate of the United States of America.

“We have earned it, we have died for it, we are paying for it and we must have it,” Norton added, inciting a crescendo of cheers, bullhorns and rebel yells.

Norton, a six-term congresswoman undeterred by a string of defeats in the District’s fight for voting representation, has introduced the No Taxation Representation Act of 2003, which would remedy District residents’ lack of representation with the creation of two seats in the Senate and one in the House.

Norton, as a non-voting delegate, has the power to introduce legislation but not to vote on it, which greatly diminishes District residents’ influence in the House. District residents’ complete absence of representation in the Senate also limits their influence in Congress.

“We cannot tolerate this insult to the entire polity of our city much longer,” Norton said.

Williams said Washington’s Democratic primary would force presidential candidates to support voting rights legislation.

“By moving D.C.’s presidential primary to first in the nation, we’re going to elevate this discussion to a national level,” Williams said. “Presidential candidates will have to address our concerns and offer solutions to rectify this injustice if they want the support of D.C. voters and (electoral) delegates.

“The citizens who live in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol building have been denied true representative government for more than 200 years and this is an injustice,” he added.

Norton said District residents are organized and poised to promote awareness about the issue throughout the country.

“This is an old fight, and we’ve long been ready,” Norton said in an interview. “We’re ready for a new phase of the fight. We’re going national and that’s what excites people.”

Walter A. Smith Jr., a constitutional lawyer and voting rights activist, said he and Norton have met with several private foundations to solicit funding for the national campaign.

“This thing is winnable if we get enough money to bring attention to the issue,” said Smith, who declined to discuss the amount of money he and Norton have raised. “It’s a winning issue. The reason it’s never passed is that the country doesn’t know about it.”

Norton has proposed several voting representation bills in the last few years that have failed to pass Congress.

In 2001, Norton proposed the No Taxation Representation Act of 2001, which granted Washington full voting representation and stipulated that if the bill wasn’t passed, District residents were to be exempt from federal taxation.

The bill caused uproar on both sides of the aisle, and was quickly defeated. Many activists assailed Norton’s tactics, claiming the tax-exempt provision led to the bill’s defeat.

But “that was a diversion,” Smith said.

“The reason why that feature was in the bill was that when Eleanor first conceived that bill, it was back when the Republicans controlled both sides of the Congress,” he explained. “And at that time, she didn’t think she could even get a hearing, much less a vote on the bill.

“I think the legislation that Eleanor introduced is exactly the right legislation,” Smith added.

Kevin Kiger, communications director for D.C. Vote, said he was optimistic that Norton’s current bill would pass, but criticized the majority of Republicans for failing to support it.

“Republicans want to think, ‘well this is just going to be Democratic congressmen,'” said Kiger in an interview last month. “That’s the right of the people of the District of Columbia. So what you’re saying is that we’re being denied those senators and representatives because you don’t want Democrats – well that’s kind of twisted democracy.”

Ben? Durant, a resident of Northeast D.C., said she didn’t think the bill would pass, citing racial and partisan factors.

“We’re too black, too urban, too liberal and too Democratic,” said Durant, echoing the words of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Williams said he was unsure whether District residents would get voting representation by the end of his tenure.

“I’m going to work for it; I’m giving my untiring effort for it,” Williams told the Hatchet. “It may come later, it may come sooner, but we’re going to work overtime and leave no stone unturned in pursuing it.”

Norton said she would get enough Republicans to support her bill.

“Ultimately, we will get enough Republicans on our side,” said Norton in an April 1 interview with the Hatchet. “The Republicans fear Democrats coming from D.C. … they see it as a partisan issue, which is amazing when you consider that voting represents a basic right.”

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