International Panel: U.S. Cannot Deny U.S. Area Voting Representation
||Puerto Rico Herald (PR)
||Friday, February 13, 2004
A ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released Wednesday held that the United States is violating the rights of the citizens of the District of Columbia (DC) by denying them voting representation in the U.S. Congress "by reason of their place of residence."
The rationale for the ruling suggests the possibility of the panel coming to the same conclusion regarding the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s lack of voting representation in the U.S. federal government.
The ruling by the Organization of American States (OAS) commission agreed with a complaint filed by an organization in DC named the Statehood Solidarity Committee in 1993. The OAS has 35 member states, all of the nations of the Western Hemisphere -- including the U.S., although Cuba’s membership is suspended because its current government is undemocratic.
The U.S. fought the complaint. It argued, among other points, that the DC statehood committee had not exhausted its opportunities to challenge the District’s lack of voting representation in the Congress in the courts.
The Commission recommended that the U.S. take measures to "guarantee" that DC residents have equal representation "in their national legislature." The ruling was approved December 29th but not released until Wednesday.
The Commission ruling agreed with the DC statehood committee in all of its rebuttals to U.S. Government arguments against the complaint, including that DC had indeed challenged its lack of votes in the Congress in the courts.
The Commission found "notable . . . that domestic courts in the United States have found that exclusion of District residents from the Congressional franchise does not violate the right to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution, not because the restriction on their right to elect Congressional representatives have been found to be justified, but because the limitation is one drawn by the Constitution itself and accordingly cannot be overcome by the one person, one vote principle."
It went on to note that the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man "prescribes no similar limits" and "establishes standards that apply to all legislative or other enactment by a state [a nation], including its constitutional provisions."
The U.S. had argued that "it is the absence of the District’s status as a [U.S.] state" that disenfranchises the citizens of Washington, DC and that there were good reasons for the seat of the national government not being placed within a State when the nation was founded.
It had also contended that the issue concerns "the very organization of the United States" so it "is a matter properly within the discretion of the people of the United States." Calling the issue "sensitive," it asserted that there was "no basis for the Commission to substitute its judgment for the political debate and decision-making of the federal branches of the government of the United States."
The Commission found, however, that the original justification for locating the U.S. capital -- protecting the fledgling national government from local pressure or pressures from one of the "relatively autonomous states" of the time -- in a voteless area of the country is obsolete. It also held that "modern developments within the United States and the Western Hemisphere" deny justification to a structure of government that denies citizens the right to voting representation.
Racial issues were considered in the dispute. The DC statehood committee noted that as majority of the District’s 572,000 people are of African heritage. The U.S. responded that the District’s status was based on matters of federalism unrelated to "race, sex, language, creed, or any other factor" of discrimination between citizens. The Commission did not find a racial motive to the disenfranchisement but held that lack of voting representation itself is simply impermissible.