D.C. residents say they're closer to vote in Congress

WASHINGTON -- The delegates from the District of Columbia were revved.

"We demand a vote!" they chanted at last month's Democratic convention as Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's non-voting delegate to Congress, looked on approvingly. It was a high point for the 70-member D.C. delegation, which spent four days lobbying for a vote in Congress with T-shirts, flashing buttons and bumper stickers sporting the slogan "Taxation Without Representation."

Speaking hours before prime time to a mostly empty convention floor, Norton's plea to "finish (Martin Luther) King's unfinished business for equal voting rights for the citizens of our capital" went largely unheard.

"We were glad for a few moments in the sun and on TV for those who saw us," says Eugene Kinslow of DC Vote, a voting rights advocacy group. The group has its work cut out for it.

"We suffer from what Ted Kennedy called the 'four toos,' " says WTOP radio commentator Mark Plotkin. "Too liberal, too urban, too Democratic and too black."

Still, in an election that features the first African-American nominee of a major party and polls that show the House and Senate likely to see larger Democratic majorities, "it's the closest we've gotten in at least a generation," says Ilir Zherka of DC Vote.

A clause in the U.S. Constitution denies Washingtonians a vote in the Capitol. The District Clause gives Congress "exclusive legislation" over the federal enclave. The almost 600,000 residents of the district have never had representation in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, Norton has a vote in committees but not on passage of legislation.

The city enjoys at least one advantage over states: It ranks No. 1 in federal spending, getting back $5.55 for every $1 residents paid in federal taxes, according to 2005 figures from the non-partisan Tax Foundation.

The 23rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1961 gave district residents, one in four of whom are government workers, a vote in presidential elections. They have used it to favor Democrats on every ballot since then.

Washingtonians long have sought representation:

•In 1978, Democrats won passage of a constitutional amendment to give D.C. two senators and a House member, but it lapsed in 1985 after 16 of the needed 38 states ratified it.

•In 1993, the Democrat-controlled House rejected a bill to create the 51st state of New Columbia by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio.

Zherka says racism has played a role in denying voting rights to the majority-black district, and though race has faded as a factor, partisanship has not.

To win support from Republicans, voting rights supporters have scaled back their ambitions. They are pushing a bill that would increase the size of the House from 435 members to 437, giving the two new seats to overwhelmingly GOP Utah and the majority-Democratic district. The bill, which still would leave district residents without senators, passed the House along party lines last year. It came up three votes shy of ending a filibuster in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called it "clearly and unambiguously unconstitutional."

Advocates plan to revive the bill next year and have been lobbying senators who opposed it, including Republican presidential candidate John McCain. He also called it unconstitutional.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama co-sponsored the bill and told local WRC-TV last week that as president he would work "to make those rights a reality."

Plotkin isn't so sure. He says he didn't detect "a great sense of urgency" when he interviewed Obama in July. "He said there were a lot of things on his plate," recalls Plotkin, who says Democrats tend to take district voters for granted. "Although he voted for the bill, I don't see it as a top priority or even a priority."

Whoever is president, voting rights are a matter of civil rights, says life-long district resident John "Peterbug" Matthews, 56. He remembers his first vote for mayor in 1974 after Congress approved "home rule."

"It was a big thing," says Matthews, who runs a shoe repair shop on Capitol Hill. "It was the first time we could vote for our own local officials."