CAMPAIGNS: Community Relations - Plates highlight DC voting rights

Client: DC Vote

Client: DC Vote

Client: DC Vote

(Washington, DC)

PR Team: In-house

Campaign: Promoting DC license plates to win representation in Congress

Time Frame: Early August - November 4, 2000

Budget: Under dollars 5,000

Washington, DC residents live in the shadow of the Capitol, but a curious clause of the US Constitution has conspired to keep them forever outside it. The clause states that Congress may 'exercise exclusive legislation in all cases' over whatever district houses it.

This has long been interpreted to mean that residents of the District of Columbia have no right to voting representation in either the House or Senate. And this is despite the fact that they pay the second highest per capita federal tax rate in America. This interpretation ignited a civil rights battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. And in the fall of 2000, the topic made its way onto DC license plates.

District resident Sarah Shapiro called in to local radio station WAMU in March of last year and suggested that DC license plates bear the slogan 'taxation without representation' to help bring attention to the issue. DC Mayor Anthony Williams heard the program, and so did members of DC Vote, a nonprofit organization dedicated to winning voting rights for the district.

'In July, Mayor Williams decreed that this would be the next license plate, and he committed that it would happen before the (2000) election,' says Amy Slemmer, executive director of DC Vote.

DC Vote jumped behind the mayor's decision and launched a no-holds-barred grassroots campaign to whip up excitement for the new plates.


'We had no PR representation and only three months before the plates came out,' says Slemmer. But DC Vote didn't need a PR firm to tell them that with 23 million tourists coming to the district every year, the plates were an unparalleled opportunity for their cause. Hoping to attract media attention, the group staged an event at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) on November 4, the day the plates became available.


DC Vote used 'old-fashioned' PR leading up to the event: slogans printed on T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons; leaflets placed on cars about town; radio show call-ins; and press releases. And they even faxed notices to lists of supporters provided by local politicians.

The organization worked closely with the mayor's office and the DMV to plan the event. The DMV took the unusual step of opening its doors on a weekend in order to accommodate what DC Vote hoped would be a large crowd interested in purchasing the plates.

On the day of the event, the DMV took on a carnival-like atmosphere with marching bands and political pageantry. Speakers included Mayor Williams, DC's non-voting House representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and DC Council chairman Linda W. Cropp (D).


People began to line up at 3am for the new plates. Almost 900 were given out, and when the head of the DMV reported for work, she received a standing ovation from the crowd.

The media took great interest in the event as well. Stories appeared in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and were heard on National Public Radio and television news broadcasts across the country. The Washington Post put the event on the front page of its Metro Section.

But the biggest boon came when Bill Clinton announced that the presidential limo would don 'taxation without representation' plates.


DC Vote is hopeful that it will pick up some pro bono PR help soon. The next thing on its calendar is an event on April 15. The organization won't say what it is, only that it will be 'fun and exciting' - words rarely associated with 'tax day'. Of course, no one would have thought the DMV could be fun either, that is until DC Vote came along.

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