Monday, February 2, 2009

DC Residents: Lack of the Right to Equal Political Participation

Federal legislation on the economy, jobs and the workplace, health and safety, education, the environment and countless other matters are before the US House of Representatives and US Senate, where over half a million US citizens, residents of the District of Columbia, have no effective voting representation. Though they pay federal taxes, serve in the military, and are bound by all legislation passed by Congress and signed into law, they have no Senators, and their one Representative in the House does not have full voting rights. Washington DC has more residents than Wyoming, whose residents have two Senators and one Representative.
The District of Columbia is the only federal district in the Americas whose residents are denied equal voting representation in the national legislature. The constitutions of other states in the region all provide for full voting representation in the national legislative body: Buenos Aires, Argentina; Brasilia, Brazil; Mexico City, Mexico; and Caracas, Venezuela.
But as the United States said in 2005 in its report to the Human Rights Committee, which monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the US Constitution (art. 1, sec. 8) “gives Congress exclusive jurisdiction over the ‘Seat of Government of the United States’ which is the District of Columbia (D.C.)," and “[i]n light of the requirement in Article 1, section 2 of the Constitution that the members of the House of Representatives be chosen by the people of the ‘States,’ the Administration has taken the position that congressional representation for the District would require a constitutional amendment.”
It should be noted that the Administration did nothing to promote such an amendment. Click here for articles by scholars challenging the notion that a constitutional amendment is required.
A constitutional amendment campaign began back in 1978 to give District residents representatives and senators, but only 16 states ratified the amendment within the seven year time limit, bringing that effort to an end. Legislation to give DC one voting representative in the House is currently pending in both the House and Senate, and a hearing on the House bill was held on 27 January 2009. Click here list of witnesses and links to their testimony.
Advocates for full political participation for District of Columbia citizens have turned to several international human rights bodies for attention to this concern:
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
In 1993, the Statehood Solidarity Committee petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States, alleging violations of Article II (right to equality before the law) and XX (right to vote and to participate in government) of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
The IACHR found a violation of these rights, and expressed concern "that the absence of Congressional representation for the District of Columbia has had a disproportionately prejudicial impact upon a particular racial group" - African Americans - "in light of the considerable African-American majority that has evolved in the District’s population over the past 40 years."
Human Rights Committee / ICCPR
The Human Rights Committee saw fit to address the lack of voting representation for DC residents in its Concluding Observations regarding the United States in 2006:
36. The Committee, having taken note of the responses provided by the delegation, remains concerned that residents of the District of Columbia do not enjoy full representation in Congress, a restriction which does not seem to be compatible with article 25 of the Covenant. (articles 2, 25 and 26)
The State party should ensure the right of residents of the District of Columbia to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives, in particular with regard to the House of Representatives
Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
The US report to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2007 stated, inter alia: “Because the United States was founded as a federation of formerly sovereign states, this provision [regarding the District of Columbia] was designed to avoid placing the nation’s capital under the jurisdiction of any one state. Thus, the reason for this provision was governmental structure, not racial.”
The Civil Society Shadow Report to CERD, however, submits that the lack of equal political participation constitutes a violation of Article 5( c) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: “Because a majority (as much as 75%) of the District’s residents is African-American, this disfranchisement is a violation of Article 5, which requires universal suffrage.”


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