Sunday, April 27, 2008

Student Perspectives on D.C. Voting Rights

For many college students and recent graduates, Washington, D.C. is the city that can make their political dreams come true. What many do not realize is that their D.C. residency also makes them politically disenfranchised.

“It’s the most preposterous, offensive thing I could think of,” said George Washington University senior Josh Bumpus, 22. Bumpus changed his voter registration from Florida to D.C. two years ago, and in doing so lost the right to elect voting representatives in Congress.

According to the Constitution, only states may have full representation in Congress. As a non-state, the District of Columbia is permitted one non-voting representative in the House of Representatives. This representative can vote in committee and engage in debate, but has no actual vote for passing a bill in the House.

Thus there are more than 500,000 Americans living in Washington, D.C. who have fewer voting rights than citizens in the rest of the country.

“My mother thought I was stupid [for registering in D.C.] because I wouldn’t have a representative or senator,” said Bumpus. “But I would rather be registered where I live.”

Bumpus came to this conclusion after the 2004 presidential election. He was unable to vote that year because he never received his absentee ballot from Florida.

“It’s a practical issue,” he said. “I didn’t want to not be able to vote.”

American University student Nick Clayton, 20, said he also feels it is important to vote local, but for different reasons. Clayton, who is originally from Kansas, changed his registration to D.C. one year ago.

“Neither D.C. nor Kansas has any chance of becoming swing states any time soon, and therefore my vote in either place on the national level was not really going to have an impact,” said Clayton. “I did want to be able to vote on local D.C. issues because I had lived there for about two years and frankly no longer really cared about farm subsides, road work or any of the myriad of other local Kansas issues anymore.”

D.C. voting rights are a contentious issue right now, in part because they are closer to becoming a reality than ever. The D.C. Voting Rights Act, which would give the District one voting representative in the House, passed the House in April 2007 but was stalled with a filibuster in the Senate months later. All three major candidates for the 2008 presidential race have made statements on the issue, with Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton speaking in favor of the bill, and Republican John McCain speaking against.

Nonetheless, some new D.C. residents avoid the whole controversy by staying registered in their home state. AU junior Mike Kerman, 20, is currently registering to vote for the first time – in New York.

“Right now even though I only live in New York about two months a year, I still consider that my home address,” said Kerman. “I guess the point where I'd change it is when I'm not financially dependent on my parents.”

Kerman did add, however, that he would not mind changing his registration to D.C. if he were planning on living in the District longer. “If I changed my registration to D.C. it wouldn’t really affect me, because I don’t vote in local elections,” he said.
On the other hand, some young voters maintain registration in other states because they feel that their vote is worth more there.

“I’d never register to vote in D.C., even if the District received legitimate congressional representation,” said writer and Ohio native Ben Breier, 23. “I will keep voting in Ohio due to its status as a battleground state in order to maximize the possible impact my meager single vote can have. I'll help keep Ohio blue as long as I can.”

Nonetheless, D.C. Vote Outreach Associate Nell Schaffer, 23, said she sees young people as an important part of the D.C. voting rights movement.

“If you look historically at different social movements, students really do play an important role,” said Schaffer. “Their brains are still open to something different, not accepting everything as it is.”

D.C. Vote is an advocacy group founded in 1998 dedicated to securing full voting rights for D.C. residents. The organization has a subgroup called Students for D.C. Vote, which organizes awareness events with different colleges and high schools in the city.

A native of D.C., Schaffer attended college in Connecticut but said she maintained her registration in D.C. “A large part of it is symbolic,” she said. “[The lack of rights] is essentially saying you’re a second class citizen.”

According to Schaffer, there is a difference between students who grew up in D.C. and those who moved there to attend college. “People from here genuinely care, but this is the way it has always been for them,” she said. “It’s more of a shock to students coming from out of state.”

D.C. voting rights are even a shock to students who don’t attend college in the District, according to Schaffer. She described one student who saw D.C.’s non-voting House representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, on the popular television show “The Colbert Report” last year. The student contacted D.C. Vote and said she wanted to start a chapter of Students for D.C. Vote on her own campus – Wichita State University in Kansas.

“Many people don’t even know D.C. doesn’t have rights,” said Schaffer. “But most of them support it once they know.”
Most students at AU come from out of state, but there is currently not an active chapter of Students for D.C. Vote on campus. Freshman Frank Poppe, 18, said he wants to change this.

Poppe first learned about D.C. Vote when he participated in Discover D.C., a university-sponsored Welcome Week program in which incoming freshmen are given tours of different D.C. neighborhoods. Poppe’s group visited the former D.C. Vote office on U Street, and he has been volunteering with the organization ever since.

“A lot of people say, ‘I believe in [voting rights], but it’s not my No. 1 priority,’” said Poppe. “But if you take that attitude it’ll never get done.”

Poppe most recently participated in D.C. Vote’s Tax Day efforts on April 14, delivering information pamphlets to different offices in the Senate. Other volunteers handed out postcards and signs at Union Station and a local post office.

Poppe, who is registered to vote in New York, said he will probably change his registration to D.C. after the 2008 presidential election. “It’s selfish for me to stay registered in New York,” he said. “I don’t feel like losing my vote in Congress, but I would do it so I can sympathize [with D.C. voters] even more.”

Poppe said that he thinks many AU student are uninformed about D.C. voting rights, which is why he wants to start a chapter of Students for D.C. Vote next semester. “There are a bunch of little things people don’t do that they could do,” he said. “It’s not a hopeless cause. It just needs to be focused on more.”

Monday, April 14, 2008

Interview: Jamie Kamlet

Jamie Kamlet is a 21-year-old junior at American University from Pelham, New York, majoring in Psychology.

ALLI: Are you registered to vote in New York?
JAMIE: Yes, I am.

A: Have you ever considered changing your voter registration to D.C.?
J: No.

A: Why not?
J: I don't plan on staying here long enough.

A: Does the fact that you would lose voting privileges here influence you in that decision?
J: Yeah, because I don't want to have taxation without representation.

A: Did you vote in the 2006 midterm election?
J: No.

A: So how can you say that you would be losing representation in D.C. if you don't participate in it in New York?
J: If I wanted to participate in it here, I couldn't. I didn't vote in midterm elections because it doesn't affect me as much as if I were a taxpayer or a parent raising a child.

A: If you were to move to D.C. on a more long-term basis, would you change your registration?
J: Yes, because I would care more about local government and I would want to vote on what's happening around me.

Interview: Mike Kerman

Mike Kerman is a 20-year-old junior at American University from Getzville, New York, majoring in Law & Society.

ALLI: Are you registered to vote in New York?

A: Why not?
M: I was 17 when the last presidential election happened, so I never registered and never really thought about it until now.

A: Are you planning on registering in time for the 2008 presidential election?
M: I've actually kind of registered online and haven't finished. But I definitely will be registered in time.

A: Are you registering within the state of New York?
M: Yeah.

A: Why are you registering in New York and not D.C.?
M: I consider my permanent residence to be New York.

A: Do you consider the loss of voting privileges in D.C. a factor?
M: No, because I don't really participate in local politics. I've never voted in any gubernatorial or local elections in New York. If I changed my registration to D.C. it wouldn't really affect me because I don't vote in local elections.

A: If you were moving to D.C., would you change your registration?
M: Right now even though I only live in New York about two months a year, I still consider that my home address. I guess the point where I'd change it is when I'm not financially dependent on my parents.

A: So if you moved to Florida for a few years you'd change it to Florida?
M: Yeah.

A: And if you moved to D.C. for a few years you'd change it to D.C.?
M: Yes.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Young D.C. voters in the 2006 midterm elections

According to a study by The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (aka CIRCLE...a much easier name):

In the 2006 midterm election, 29% of all eligible voters in D.C. ages 18-29 voted.  This is higher than the national average (25%) but lower than in surrounding areas (33% for surrounding counties in Maryland, and 32% for surrounding counties in Virginia.)

"It's Time" (For D.C. Voting Rights, According to the League of Women Voters)

An interesting visual - this is an educational video about D.C. voting rights produced by the League of Women Voters Education Fund.

Background information on D.C. voting rights

Side note: I apologize because I forgot to do this before it was actually due.

Summary of the project

Before I post any research, I'd like to establish the subject of my project: youth voting in the Washington, D.C. area.  To be more specific, I'm going to look at how students and young professionals moving to D.C. feel about changing their registration from that of their home state to the district.  Do many people do this?  Do they feel disenfranchised because D.C. residents don't have a vote in Congress?  Do most people even care?  And how do organizations like DC Vote deal with this issue?

Background on D.C. voting rights

  • In 1801, the Organic Act was passed, establishing the District of Columbia.  It also prevented residents of the District from voting for president, vice president or any member of Congress.
  • Basically, D.C. does not have full voting rights because it is a district and not a state, and the Constitution says that only states may vote in Congress.
  • In 1961, the 23rd Amendment gave residents of the District the right to vote for president and vice president.
  • Currently, D.C. residents have the power to elect a non-voting representative to the House of Representatives.  This representative can vote in committee and engage in debate, but has no vote for actual passage of a bill in the House.
  • D.C. has no representation at all in the Senate.