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DC Holds Early, Non-Binding Primary Election To Focus Attention On Non-Voting Rights Of Residents

StoryJanuary 12, 2004
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The first primary election of 2004 will not be held in New Hampshire, but in the District of Columbia. District officials moved up the ballot from May in an effort to garner national attention to the fact that DC residents have no vote in Congress. We speak with DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. [includes transcript]

Voters go to the polls tomorrow in the first primary election of 2004. And they’re going in the District of Columbia.

District officials moved up the ballot to January from its customary spot in May in an effort to garner some of the national attention normally reserved for the New Hampshire primary, which is scheduled this year for Jan. 27.

The reason is to send a message to the world: That residents of DC have no vote in Congress.

That’s right. In the nation’s capital–where 535 members of Congress work–the residents do not elect a single one.

National Democratic Party officials only approved D.C.'s primary move to January on condition that the ballot is non-binding. In other words, the results won't matter. But Local Democratic Party officials hope that the move will focus attention on DC resident’s non-voting status, where lawsuits and “Taxation Without Representation” license plates have not succeeded.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, civil rights activist Al Sharpton, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich are the only major candidates who will contest the D.C primary. Kucinich has announced that he will introduce a bill in Congress when it returns to session that will make Washington DC the 51st state.

Yesterday, eight of the nine Democratic presidential candidates debated in Iowa where recent polls have suggested a tightening race in the state. The only candidate to skip the debate was retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas, who is not contesting Iowa.

Race was a recurrent theme throughout the two-hour debate sponsored by the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential forum. The sharpest exchange came when Sharpton accused Dean of not having hired any minorities to fill senior policy positions in his state saying “It seems as though you discovered blacks and browns during this campaign.”

Throughout the debate, candidates criticized President Bush’s recently announced immigration proposal and questioned the president’s commitment to voting rights.

  • * Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton*, the sole congressional representative for the district. Norton serves in the House of Representatives and can vote on legislation before House committees, but cannot vote on the House floor.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton. She is the sole Congressional Representative for the District. She can vote in House committees but she cannot vote on the House Floor. We welcome you to Democracy Now!.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Thank you, Amy Goodman.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Not a lot of people know about what’s happening tomorrow. Can you talk about its significance and its genesis?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: It’s precisely because people don’t know we don’t have voting rights that we have gone to the trouble to move our own primary up. Most Americans according to the polls think that the Americans who live in the nation’s capital have the same rights that other Americans do. That’s frustrating for people who live here. What makes this particularly outrageous is that the Congress requires our budget to come–our budget raised here in the District–to come there and has used our budget to attach a rider that keeps the District from using its own funds to lobby the Congress or the country to tell people we don’t have voting rights. That doesn’t leave us with a lot of ways to even inform the country, much less change our civic condition here. This primary, while not perfect, came from the grassroots. It came from voting rights activists and our council agreed that we should do what we could to make this primary a vehicle for informing the country. That the people who live in the nation’s capital are without the same rights they have.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how this all came into being? How it is that residents in the nation’s capital, where the Congress actually does its business do not have the right to vote for them. That you are in essence a shadow Congress member.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, I’m not a shadow Congresswoman, because I am a member of Congress and am considered, and pass legislation every day and bring home lots of things for my constituents. We do have a shadow delegation, that’s why I made that distinction here, who lobby in order to get our full rights. This came to be not because the framers of the Constitution intended it, but when the District of Columbia was designated as the capital under the constitution, there was a ten-year transition period during which clearly the framers intended everybody here to have the same representation everybody else had because people did in fact vote in that territory. It was a territory of part of Maryland and part of Virginia and they voted there. Then the transition period occurred and Congress, of course, would have had to–when it took control of the District of Columbia, after that transition period–would have had to take action to make sure that these rights continued in the newly formed District of Columbia, under the jurisdiction of Congress and it never took the occasion to do so, and there are lots of theories as to why not. One theory is that although the District didn’t have a majority Black population, until–goodness I was almost grown, I’m a native Washingtonian–it was 1960’s. It had a large Black population for a long time and that in this country, that had a lot to do with not giving the city its full voting rights. But today it has more no do with partisan politics than anything else. Like every large city, we are largely Democratic, the Congress has many Republicans in it, they don’t have voting rights in their platform, Democrats do. We are as much the victim of being Democrats as we are anything else today in modern America, and so we have to be rescued by our own fellow Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your comment on the fact that the two really defining primaries caucuses, Iowa and then New Hampshire are held in two of the whitest states in the nation?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Yeah. We along with I must say, lots of other states regard these primaries as not only unrepresentative, but perhaps sending false signals about where the country is going because they don’t in fact have a cross-section of America. We don’t think — we think that the notion of these first five primaries, is probably going to be on their last legs, because now so many states are coming forward to challenge. We didn’t challenge in time to become the first primary. As I indicated, this didn’t come in kind of an official way. It came from voting rights activists. We never got to present our case before the Democratic National Committee, so we didn’t have really any chance to be first. But even states that did, like Michigan, a battleground state, were turned back because Iowa and New Hampshire became first only because they are first, not because anybody thought this through, or not because it helps to forecast who are the best candidates.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you support Congressman Kucinich’s bill for making Washington, D.C. the 51st state?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I have to smile because I, of course, put up and got the first and only vote for statehood in 1993 before Dennis came, but I guess people running for Congress will do anything we can to become a state.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. That does it for the program, thank you for being with us. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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