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Posted at 4:58 PM ET, 03/10/2009

Wrong Way on D.C. Voting Rights

By Gina Acosta

Congress might be right in trying to correct the political wrong being done to the residents of the District of Columbia [Metro, Feb. 28]. Perhaps the lack of suffrage is an “intolerable injustice of American citizens being denied representation in the government” [editorial, Jan. 28]. But lawmakers are trying to achieve the goal of voting representation for the staunchly Democratic District by a means that seems wrongheaded and that smacks of a grab for power.

With Democrats in charge of the legislative and executive branches, there’s a strong chance that a voting rights law will be enacted — possibly soon. The gun-rights amendment that has stalled the bill notwithstanding, the Republicans will not be able to block legislation forever. But the approach of this bill does not square with our historical traditions and is fraught with potential constitutional conflicts.

History tells us that when suffrage has been expanded in the United States, this has been achieved through the constitutional amendment process. The 15th (black men), 19th (women) and 26th (for voting at 18 years of age) amendments all granted disenfranchised citizens their legal rights to vote and to be truly represented in Congress. This is the way D.C. citizens should gain their rights.

Granted, it may be difficult to convince two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states to agree to giving D.C. residents voting representation. But if the issue is as compelling and clear as many in Washington seem to think it is, the power of their arguments should carry the day and convince most Americans of the righteousness of the cause. The amendment route places the issue in the marketplace of ideas to be accepted or rejected.

The other important reason for addressing the issue through the amendment process is that a D.C. voting rights law may be overturned by the Supreme Court anyway. The Constitution is clear (Article 1, Section 2): “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states .....” This is a problem. Supporters of the issue cannot argue that the District is a state. Also, in the 23rd Amendment, the District was referred to as “the seat of government of the United States,” not a state. Further, when the Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it included protection for people of “any American state, territory, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.” The court made it clear that the District did not constitute “any state” and that its unique status needed to be recognized in the law. None of this bodes well for a constitutional defense of a law granting D.C. voting rights.

So even if the amendment road for D.C. voting representation seems steep and littered with obstacles, it is the fairest and most long-lasting approach. A quick victory through statute might be short-lived and give the country the impression that despite this new era of change in Washington, congressional Democrats are trying to use a back door to extend their political advantage and strengthen their legislative position.

Mike Henry
College Park

By Gina Acosta  | March 10, 2009; 4:58 PM ET
Categories:  DC Vote  
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