Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

D.C. fights for representation

The red and white “Taxation Without Representation” flag flying outside the U Street office of D.C. Vote is stained and tattered, a symbol of the ongoing struggle to secure voting rights for District residents.

Inside the office, paid staff and volunteers scurry about with a renewed sense of purpose, as Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D-D.C.) bill to give 600,000 District residents congressional representation makes its way through the hallowed halls of Congress.

The No Taxation Without Representation Act of 2003, introduced by Norton in March in the U.S. House of Representatives, would grant District residents full representation in Congress by creating two seats in the Senate and one seat in the House.

At issue is Norton’s status as a delegate, which prevents her from voting on legislation, severely limiting District residents’ ability to influence congressional proceedings and legislation. The complete absence of representation for the District in the Senate is also a barrier to congressional influence. District residents are subject to federal taxation even though they don’t have voting representation in Congress.

Norton, a six-term congresswoman whose legislative efforts have earned her the nickname “warrior on the hill,” appears to be a modern-day Sisyphus, forever condemned to pushing voting representation up Capitol Hill only to see it defeated by overwhelming Republican force year after year.

In an effort to secure the passage of her bill, Norton has enlisted the support of her democratic colleagues in the House and Senate.

Norton’s staunchest supporter, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), has brought a similar bill to the floor of the Senate, which is co-sponsored by several democratic senators, including presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

“With the Lieberman-Norton bill, we’ve crossed that initial hurdle, which is to get a consensus on a legislative strategy and to get the endorsement of key people,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote. “We haven’t had this vehicle and this effort in a generation, so now that we have it, we need to take the next few steps to make this an issue that Congress engages in.”

Zherka, a veteran of various civil rights movements, speaks with restrained enthusiasm about the new legislation, cognizant of the many blows dealt to District residents in their centuries-old plight for voting rights.

The rallying cry used by voting rights proponents, “taxation without representation,” is more than a phrase that conjures up images of defiant New Englanders hurling the king’s tea into Boston Harbor; it also signifies a perpetual struggle that has existed since our nation’s birth.

D.C. was little more than a dank swamp when the federal government moved here from Philadelphia in 1790. Fearing the local population’s meddling in national affairs, the founding fathers sought to limit their influence by barring the 14,000 District residents from voting in congressional elections, said Dr. Mark David Richards, a political sociologist. Richards has spent more than five years researching and documenting the history of District residents’ struggle for voting rights and self-government.

He said the founding fathers realized the injustice of not granting District residents representation in Congress.

“I think it was a secondary consideration, and they recognized early on that it was a violation of American principles,” Richards said. “But they rationalized it by saying that they violated these principles for a special purpose.”

Many District residents, while upset at their lack of representation of Congress, were indifferent to the matter until it became apparent that they would have to pay taxes. District residents were dealt a blow in 1820 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that District residents were subject to federal taxation regardless of whether they were represented in Congress.

In the mid-1800s, several presidents supported District voting rights, but to no avail.

Richards said their support for voting rights underscored the geographical fragmentation of D.C. and the government’s desire to end that fragmentation. Until 1871, the District was separated into three municipalities, with a local governing board presiding over each municipality.

In 1871, Congress adjoined the different municipalities and created a nonvoting delegate for the District. In 1874, however, the delegate was abolished, and it would be another 100 years until District residents would get another one.

“By having a delegate, Congress designates authority to someone,” Richards said “That’s the person Congress listens to. It gave them a point person to talk to so they wouldn’t have to go to three different mayors and three different county commissioners.”

Officials proposed several bills that would have granted voting representation to District citizens in the early 1900s, but these were defeated as lack of interest in the issue turned the government’s attention elsewhere, away from the neighborhoods surrounding Congress.

“I think it’s always the same thing, and that’s the inability to raise awareness about the need for voting representation,” said Richards, drawing parallels between Norton’s fight for voting representation and the doomed voting rights campaigns of the early 1900s.

Zherka, while also attributing past failures to a lack of awareness, remains optimistic that D.C. Vote and other organizations will be successful in launching a national campaign to push for the passage of Norton’s bill.

“It’s a lot of work – a lot of work outside D.C. – but it’s work we’re committed to doing, and ultimately we’ll be successful,” he said.

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