Coming Together to Expand Our Democracy

Posted May 14, 2007 at 6:07pm

History is full of unusual alliances forged in service of the public good. Our own alliance is no exception, as we come together to support expanding American democracy to better represent our two respective populations. We both believe the time has come to expand the U.S. House of Representatives to 437 Members, adding a first-ever seat for the District of Columbia and an additional seat for Utah.

We write as two very different attorneys general serving two very different constituencies. One of us is appointed, serving the approximately 580,000 mostly Democratic residents who live in the 68 square miles that make up the District of Columbia. One of us is elected, serving the 2.5 million mostly Republican residents who live in the 85,000 square miles that make up the state of Utah.

Despite these differences, we have similar goals. The District of Columbia is seeking to right a long-standing wrong. The District’s local budget and laws are subject to Congressional approval. Its residents pay federal income taxes, go to war and serve on federal juries. Yet it has had no voting representation in Congress for more than 200 years and remains the only democratic capital in the world with no voice in the national legislature.

Utah’s fight, a more recent one, is against underrepresentation. The Beehive State missed receiving a fourth House seat by 857 people in the 2000 Census, despite having more than 11,000 missionaries living overseas who were uncounted by census takers. North Carolina, by contrast, had 18,360 overseas members of the military counted and received the additional seat.

Our interests are appropriately intertwined in legislation now before the Senate. The bill in question would permanently expand the House for the first time since 1911, adding a first voting seat for the District and a fourth voting seat for Utah. This addresses the concerns of our respective constituencies with a solution that is long overdue.

As the top law enforcement officials for the District of Columbia and Utah, we have each taken an oath to defend the Constitution. It is therefore our obligation to ensure that any legislation we support be not only fair, but also constitutional. The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007 is both.

Opponents of this bill contend that it is unconstitutional because Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution limits the House of Representatives to Members elected by “the several States” and therefore cannot include the District of Columbia. But this argument ignores the fact that Congress has acted hundreds of times to treat the District as a “state” for various specific legislative purposes. Congress also has acted to give even nonresidents of states — American citizens living abroad — the right to vote in national elections. Certainly, Congress can also allow District citizens to be enfranchised, a right that is at the core of our democratic principles.

The framers of the Constitution did not intend to deprive residents of the nation’s capital of their fundamental right to vote. Any such restriction on representation of the District’s citizens would have been contrary to the principles and intent of the framers to ensure a representative form of government.

The federal government’s legislative branch is the proper venue for this change. No judicial solution exists for the problem of the District’s lack of representation nor for the problem of Utah’s underrepresentation. The Supreme Court refused to take on the District problem by denying certiorari in Adams v. Clinton in 2000. Likewise, the court opted not to overrule the Utah census process in Utah v. Evans in 2002. Congress alone has the authority and responsibility to right these wrongs.

Countless legal scholars from across the political spectrum, including Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and USA PATRIOT Act architect Viet Dinh, agree with our assessment of the D.C. Voting Rights Act’s constitutionality. Dinh calls the District of Columbia’s lack of representation “a political disability with no constitutional rationale.”

It’s time to end the injustices suffered by our respective constituencies without delay.

Linda Singer is attorney general for the District of Columbia. Mark Shurtleff is Utah’s attorney general.