D.C. Seeks International Judgment on Voting Rights

Led by Washington, D.C., Del. Eleanor Homes Norton (search), activists who want to increase voting rights in the nation's capital are taking their case to international human rights monitors in hopes of putting political pressure on members of Congress back in the United States.

"There is the stark contradiction of going to Iraq to bring democracy, when you haven’t even brought it to your own capital," said Norton, who this month asked congressional members of the Helsinki Commission (search) to look into a report that found the U.S. government in violation of an international human rights treaty because it does not give D.C. voters the same representation in Congress as the 50 states.

Tim Cooper, who helped launch the initial investigation through the Organization of American States (search) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said the organization’s December ruling, which came nearly 11 years after he and 22 others filed the inquiry, declares the United States in violation of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (search), the governing charter of the OAS.

Cooper and Norton sent separate letters to the Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency formed in 1976 with the goal of fostering relations with European governments through shared security issues. Its task, in part, is to monitor human rights abuses, including unfair elections and broken democracies.

Cooper said OAS ruling should make members of Congress squirm.

"This is a nice piece of political work," said Cooper. "This is where we put intense heat on the U.S. government."

But not everyone believes that these international bodies have any grounds to scold the U.S. government, nor do they see anything but political posturing on the part of Norton for pressing the cause. Though popular among District voters and some members of Congress, the issue of voting rights for the District has failed to gain much traction on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

"I am disappointed that Norton’s pandering has stooped so low as to invoke international busybodies to criticize the United States," said Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation (search). "I hope members of Congress will give [the OAS report] the lack of regard which it is due."

The OAS charter, signed by 35 member states, including the United States, commits members to monitoring security and peace in the Americas, though no enforcement powers are given. The 1975 Helsinki Accords (search), also non-binding, led to the commission’s creation and state a similar mission.

Both letters from Norton and Cooper asked the commissioners to look at the OAS findings, pointing out that the OAS report offers a remedy in which Washington, D.C., voters are given "the effective right to participate, directly or through freely chosen representatives and in general conditions of equality, in their national legislature."

Representatives from the federal government, as well as eight House members and eight Senators serve on the American delegation of the Helsinki Commission.

Norton said congressional commissioners must hold hearings on the matter.

"I think this is a test of the commission itself," said Holmes Norton, who has represented D.C. as its sole non-voting delegate for 14 years. "I think it will be far more credible if it shows it is willing to look into a human rights matter in its own back yard."

But Gaziano said the framers of the U.S. Constitution (search) knew that residents of the District, which is not a state, would enjoy the unique position of living in the heart of the federal government. He said they also knew that giving residents full representation might create corruption and an unfair advantage when it came to the appropriation of federal dollars.

"The D.C residents should know they have a right to vote on many things, and as far as representation in Congress is concerned, they ought to know, but stubbornly refuse to accept, that they have a greater virtual representation — rather than a direct representation — than any other people in the rest of the country," he said.

Residents of the District earned the right to vote for president through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and adopted a local government through the "Home Rule Act" (search) in 1974. Residents still only have one elected delegate to represent the city in Congress, and that delegate does not have full voting privileges on Capitol Hill.

Activists blame many of the District’s problems — like poverty and failing public schools — in part on "taxation without representation,"  and even sport that moniker on local license plates. To attract further attention, supporters convinced Washington Democrats to schedule a non-binding presidential primary in January before the New Hampshire primary, long held as the first primary in the nation.

Activists believe it helped to bring national attention to their cause and forced presidential candidates to address their situation.

"We saw it as a wonderful tool to raise awareness," said Kevin Kiger, spokesman for D.C. Vote (search). "And from our point of view it was a phenomenal success." Kiger added that he hopes the request to the Helsinki Commission will have the same effect.

"I think that right now, it is important that the United States understand that while they are trying to secure democracy around the world, they are still in violation of international law and haven’t actually completely the world of democracy here at home," he said.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (search), R-Colo., and Rep. Chris Smith (search), R-N.J., co-chair the American delegation of the Helsinki commission. They deferred comment to the commission offices, which did not return phone calls. Rep. Alcee Hastings (search), D-Fla., who sits on the commission, is supportive of the inquiry.

"He is absolutely supportive of Delegate Holmes Norton," said spokesman Fred Turner. "You have a city of a half a million people who are disenfranchised and in the greatest democracy in the world. Mr. Hastings finds that offensive."

But Gaziano said he believes this story will quickly fade into the background.

"Those members who have a political ax to grind will feign concern," he said. "I expect most members who understand our government will ignore it."