Why Washington DC Voters Still Can't Vote for President





James Dao, writing in the New York Times (Jan. 12th, 2004)

Danny Glover's voice purred on answering machines, urging people to turn out for Representative Dennis J. Kucinich. Rock bands thumped out chords for Howard Dean. The Rev. Al Sharpton quipped and bellowed for votes.

It felt as if primary season had arrived in Washington this weekend, a bit earlier than usual. And it had, sort of.

On Tuesday, district voters will go to the polls to cast ballots for a Democratic candidate for president, six days before the Iowa caucuses and two weeks before New Hampshire's primary. Organizers proudly call it"the first in the nation primary." But it is not, really, since the district's 39 delegates will be apportioned during caucuses next month. This is, alas, a nonbinding beauty contest.

And judging by the fact that only Dr. Dean and three of the low-polling candidates -- former Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Mr. Kucinich and Mr. Sharpton -- are on the ballot, a not very important contest at that.

It was supposed to be much more: a powerful protest against the district's lack of representation in Congress and the Democratic Party's complicity in that condition. That it became something less is emblematic of the frustrations endured and aspirations dashed of a rights movements as old as the Republic.

"Yeah, we ruffle feathers," said Sean Tenner, executive director of the D.C. Democracy Fund, a political action committee."It's been 200 years, and we can't vote."

The first-primary idea was spurred by what Mr. Sharpton has called"the dirty little secret of American democracy": in Washington, where 535 members of Congress work, the residents do not elect a single one.

While Wyoming, population 494,000, has one representative and two senators, Washington, population 571,000, has none. (It does have a nonvoting delegate in the House.)

Yet a poll taken in 1999 showed that nearly 60 percent of college graduates nationwide who were registered to vote did not know that fact.

Activists concocted the"first in the nation" primary last year precisely to parry such misperceptions, believing they could force candidates to debate their disenfranchisement before the national news media. The City Council unanimously agreed, moving the primary from May to Jan. 13. Having tried lawsuits and license plates to publicize the district's plight, democracy advocates thought they had finally found the answer.

But after two centuries of frustration, theirs is the wary optimism of Boston Red Sox fans. Sure enough, disappointment lurked nearby: in February, the Democratic National Committee, concerned about voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, strong-armed local Democratic leaders to make the primary nonbinding.

Voting rights activists urged the local party to keep the primary binding and accept the national party's punishments, which might have included barring district delegates from the national convention. Their goal was to storm that convention like the Mississippi freedom delegates of 1964, whose protests against segregation embarrassed the party before the nation.

It was not to be. By a one-vote margin, the local party voted to make the primary nonbinding. Iowa and New Hampshire won.

"If it had been binding," said Timothy Cooper, a leading author of the primary,"the media could not have written it off as a beauty contest."

But the media did write it off. And in November, five of the nine candidates dropped out. Even Dr. Dean, who had built a formidable district organization, stopped campaigning here, skipping the lone debate on Friday to stump in New Hampshire. (He was represented by an empty chair. The chair was twice asked to explain why Dr. Dean had not attended. It did not respond.)

Still, the primary's chief advocates argue that it has done its job, if imperfectly, by forcing all nine Democrats to take positions on district voting rights. All endorsed granting Washington seats in Congress; several supported statehood.

"It goes to the old adage: I don't care if it's good or bad publicity, just spell my name right," said Councilman Jack Evans, who helped push the primary through the Council."Some coverage has been good, some bad, some has ridiculed us. But it has been worth it."

But bitterness toward the national Democratic Party still runs deep.

"It's a reinforcement of our political status as the Rodney Dangerfield of the Democratic Party," said Mark Plotkin, a local radio commentator."There are three things certain in life: death, taxes and that D.C. will vote for Democrats. That's the problem here. Nobody is scared of us."

The founding fathers did not exactly intend things to work out this way, historians say. They carved the district out of Maryland and Virginia so the capital would not be part of any state, hoping to defuse state rivalries. But the arrangement created an unintended conundrum: if the district was not a state or part of a state, its residents could not vote in federal elections. Some of the framers fretted about this, but they effectively punted the problem.

Progress came slowly. Congress and the states approved the 23rd Amendment in 1961, granting district residents the right to vote for president and vice president. In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon signed a home-rule law empowering Washington to elect a mayor and council.

But giving the district Congressional representatives has been a more prickly matter. For years, segregationists opposed granting Washington, a mostly black city, votes in Congress. Then came four terms of mismanagement under Mayor Marion Barry in the 1980's and 1990's, prompting Congress to reject any suggestion of greater autonomy for the district.

Today, the city is running a surplus, its finances in their best shape in decades. But now partisan politics looms as the major obstacle to rights: Republicans fear that Washington, an overwhelmingly Democratic city, will tip the political balance in Congress if it receives seats in either of the closely divided houses.

Somewhat surprisingly, a Republican, Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, has proposed a compromise: give the district one House seat, balanced by an additional seat for Republican-dominated Utah. The bill would not grant the district Senate seats.

Davis's proposal has yet to gain broad support from Washington's fractious democracy activists, many of whom deride his plan as an unpalatable half-loaf. But to others, the district must take what it can get. Then, they say, they will look to 2008 and another chance to pre-empt Iowa and New Hampshire.

"After 200 years, what else can you do but agitate, agitate, agitate?" said Mark David Richards, a pollster who helped promote the primary.


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