D.C. Voting Rights

As promised, here is a non-economics-related post. The Congress is remarkably close to granting voting rights in the House to the D.C. delegate, effectively ending the situation emblazoned on virtually all of the license plates one sees from the District. Now, of course, this bill will certainly be heard before the Supreme Court, as its constitutionality is in question.

To state the problem briefly, the Constitution declares that voting rights in Congress shall be granted to representatives  “of the several States.” D.C., of course, is not a state but a federal district. Strict interpretation of the Constitution as it stands would require that D.C. never receive voting rights in Congress, and numerous people have argued this to be the case.

In the 1970s, an amendment to grant D.C. voting representation was proposed. It passed Congress but failed to garner the approval of 38 state legislatures, and thus expired after 7 years in limbo. Often it is argued that, if D.C. wants voting representation, then another amendment should be proposed. Anything less, it is declared, would violate the dicta of the Constitution.

Of course, I must agree that, literally, the Constitution only allows for voting rights in Congress to go to the representatives of the several states. In this sense, I do tend to agree that one way to resolve the problem would be to pass an amendment. However, I feel that I have to point out something I find rather interesting with the literalism espoused by those who declare that the D.C. Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.

The First Amendment says, and I quote, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”. Look at that phrasing again: shall make no law. That is as absolute a statement of legal restriction as can be made. However, we abridge free speech all the time. Incitements to imminent lawless action? Criminal. Libel and slander? Criminal. Various kinds of obscene or pornographic material? Criminal. These laws are all violations of the Constitution when read literally. There is no wiggle room with a literal interpretation of “shall make no law.”

This is why I do not read the Constitution literally. I think incitements to imminent lawless action should be criminal; libel and slander should be criminal, etc. Allowing D.C. a voting representative, while in a  literal sense unconstitutional, is certainly at least as reasonable an action as criminalizing slander. So, literalists, which way do you want it: D.C. gets voting rights and we keep laws I’m sure most of you want to keep, or we continue with your literalist fetish and, along with denying D.C. a vote, strike down every single law which abridges the freedom of speech (and that is just for a start).

Pick one.

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  • citizenw  On March 6, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Founders Madison and Mason (and others) recommended “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles”, such as the following:

    “VI. That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in Assembly, ought to be free; and that all men having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with and attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent, or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented for the public good.”
    Virginia Declaration of Rights, June, 1776

    See also Minor v. Happersett, Dred Scott v. Sanford, etc., etc.

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