City Desk

Voting Rights, D.C. Vote, and Return on Investment

0326dcvoteLL, in his column this week, like many political observers of late questioned the strategy the District's political establishment has pursued to secure congressional voting rights for District residents.

"Since the idea of trading a single House vote for D.C. for an extra House vote for Utah took root five years ago in the mind of then Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the fire and fury that was once channeled into mass arrests and fiery street protests has been transformed into lobbying calls in the halls of congressional office buildings," LL wrote. "But playing nice, it turns out, isn't much of a play at all. The logical conclusion of the compromise approach played out over the past year: If you choose to play the game, sometimes you get outplayed."

LL also took a shot at D.C. Vote—the voting rights advocacy group that boasts the highest profile, fattest coffers, and most institutional support, by a long shot. After years of effort and millions of dollars invested in the group, LL wrote, "there is the real possibility of emerging with nothing to show for it."

D.C. Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka responded to LL's piece in a statement today. "You got it wrong," he wrote. "We successfully shifted the debate to a focus on rights—to representation and democracy—for DC residents."

He continues:

As a result, we have garnered more bi-partisan support than any other effort in a generation. We have built the largest and most enduring national coalition ever around this issue. That coalition has engaged tens of thousands of people in the fight. We have educated over a 100 million people world-wide through the news coverage of our activities. We have secured bi-partisan majority votes in Congress for the first time in 30 years. With others, we have also secured the complete elimination of riders on reproductive rights, needle-exchange and medical marijuana.

Most importantly, we have institutionalized the movement for the first time in the history of the District.

Advocacy campaigns are marathons, not sprints. No legislation is ever "dead" while the movement promoting it is still strong. Despite this set back, we remain strong. Our campaign of steps toward statehood is the only viable strategy. Don't count us out. Within the remaining months of this year, we will fight against attacks to our gun laws, improve Home Rule and work to create an opportunity for passage of the DC Voting Rights Act.

D.C. Vote employs many committed, hardworking activists, and Zherka touts some undeniable achievements—particularly the death of social-policy riders. But how much of that credit goes to D.C. Vote for those achievements—as opposed to Eleanor Holmes Norton or simply to the existence of a solid Democratic congressional majority—is not an easy call.

So the question remains: What's our return on investment—with the Davis-Norton compromise generally, and with D.C. Vote in particular?

For D.C. Vote, the question would be quite so sharp if it hadn't been anointed as the institution that's "institutionalizing the movement."

Not only has D.C. Vote functioned as the movement's de facto strategy hub, but the District government, in particular, has sent hundreds of thousands of local dollars to the organization in recent years (including very recently), in addition to its impressive private fundraising.

D.C. Vote is, among other things, a lobbying firm, and given the movement's Hill-focused strategy (i.e., passing the D.C. House Voting Rights Act) that's a hugely important part of its business. After all, if a large corporation hires Patton Boggs or Quinn Gillespie to get results and pays big money for it, sooner or later it wants results.

At what point do taxpayers and private funders deserve to see some results?

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  • Indeed

    This is what helps make DC one of the least progressive major cities that's not in the midwest or the south: lack of organizing.

    LL, you didn't get it wrong. Real voting rights shouldn't mean compromising our principles.

    We need an organization that can engage and organize people who live in this city. It is clear that DC Vote is not particularly interested in doing this, or if it is, it really sucks at it. The problem is that voting rights is viewed, by DC vote, as a legislative snafu rather then a movement people really want to support. Having someone with experience on the Hill is nice, but you've got to have an organizer who knows how to bring people together. This could be a movement. Instead it's a lobbyist with some bumper stickers.

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  • DC Resident

    "Indeed": well said. I would only add that it couldn't hurt if Mr. Zherka actually lived in the District rather than in Maryland. He would actually have a feel for the city and its residents rather than see us as a cash cow to pay his bills.

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