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Washington, DC, Uses Presidential Primary as 'Attention-Getter' - 2004-01-10

The 2004 U.S. presidential election race gets underway on Tuesday when residents of the District of Columbia vote in the first primary election of the year. But the D.C. primary is quite a curious thing.

A presidential primary election is usually straightforward: it's organized by one or both of the major political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. The contests are held in about 40 states and the District of Columbia. The results determine the party's choice of a presidential nominee later in the year.

But the D.C. primary stands out and not for the effect it might have on the presidential race. Local Democratic Party officials say they are using the primary to send a message to the world. They moved the primary date from May to January 13 so it'll be the first in the nation.

"They changed it because they wanted to get national and worldwide attention to the fact that D.C. residents were residents of the only capital of the world whose national government deprived them of a seat in the national legislature," says local activist Mark Plotkin.

The District of Columbia, which has a population of about 600,000, has no representatives in the U.S. Senate and only a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.

Eleanor Holmes Norton is that House official, and she says that the city is essentially using the presidential primary as an attention-getting device - because surveys show most Americans are not aware of the city's voting rights problems.

"We have seized the opportunity provided by a presidential election year to simply use whatever is available to us, and a first-in-the-nation primary, which tells the country where we stand on the candidates who participate, is one way to inform our fellow citizens. I mean, that is an abomination," she says.

How is it that the nation's capital lacks voting rights in the national legislature?

"It's very clear that at points in time it was a racial issue," says Kevin Keiger, a local historian.

"The District of Columbia was not always a majority African American city, but it is now and has been for several decades. It's pretty clear that before civil rights [movement in the 1950s and 1960s], even around the time of civil rights, the issue of giving full congressional representation had to do with race."

There are also political reasons the District of Columbia lacks representation. "The issue [of D.C. voting rights] now divides people along partisan lines," says Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. "The District, like most big cities in the United States, is largely made up of Democratic Party voters. You now have a division between Democrats and Republicans in the Congress. Democrats tend to be for full voting rights for the District. Republicans tend to be against. We think that can be overcome in the name of democracy."

How do city residents feel about the primary vote on Tuesday?

"I haven't really thought about it that much….. I don't know anything about it…. Not terribly excited…… Oh, I don't know. I can't speak on it. I'm sorry…..I'll be honest with you. I wasn't aware there was a primary on Tuesday…I think it's an atrocity we don't have representation in Congress… I'll be there.. I'll be there to vote," are just some of the random responses from people on the streets of the city.

If some residents seem less than enthusiastic, the fact is: their primary votes won't count. National Democratic Party officials only approved D.C.'s primary move on condition that the results won't matter. The national Party didn't want the D.C. race to overshadow the traditionally-first New Hampshire primary later this month.

So what's the point, then, of having a primary in D.C.?

"The primary is still going ahead. It's the still the first," says voting rights activist Mark Plotkin. "The whole idea is, we've garnered more attention by this contrivance, gimmick, call it what you want, but a worthwhile gimmick, drawing attention to: 'Why are you planning to do this when you know it won't have any impact? The point is you and I are talking about it now, newspapers have written about it, and it will get some attention when the votes are actually cast.'"

Other analysts point out that in an effort to call national attention to their disenfranchisement, city activists and officials have paid a high price: they've sacrificed the District's voice in the presidential nominating process.