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Voting Rights in Washington, DC

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Citizens living in Washington, DC may vote in national and municipal elections, but they have no voting representation in Congress. Is this fair?

Latest Developments

On April 18, 2007, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-NY) proposed the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007. The new legislation would have given the District of Columbia one voting representative in the U.S. House. DC currently has no voting representatives in either chamber of Congress.

On September 18, 2007, the U.S. Senate voted 57-43 to allow a vote on the legislation, which effectively killed it. The bill needed 61 votes to override a Republican filibuster, and 67 votes to override a presidential veto.

Origins of Washington, DC

In Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress is given the power to establish a "seat of government, ten miles square" that would ultimately include the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court, and other federal buildings and memorials. President George Washington selected the site in 1791, and in 1800 the U.S. capital moved from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to the new city of Washington, DC.

Timeline of DC Voting Rights

1802 Power to elect city council.
1848 Power to elect other city officials.
1871 Power to elect non-voting representative in the U.S. House.
1874 Power to elect non-voting representative is revoked.
1878 Power to elect a mayor and council is revoked.
1961 23rd Amendment is ratified, allowing DC voters to vote in presidential elections.
1967 Power to elect mayor and city council is reinstated.
1971 Power to elect non-voting representative is reinstated.

Recent History

There have been several attempts to extend congressional representation to Washington, DC residents. In 1978, Congress passed the DC Voting Rights Amendment, which would have treated the District of Columbia as if it were a state. The amendment was not ratified, and expired in 1985. In 1992, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to extend full statehood to the District of Columbia, but this measure died in the Senate.

Argument for DC Voting Rights: Taxation Without Representation

Unlike members of other non-voting U.S. territories, residents of the District of Columbia pay U.S. taxes just like residents of other states. Because they are not granted representation in Congress, where decisions regarding these taxes are made, they are quite literally subject to taxation without representation--taxation without representation being one of the primary reasons for the American Revolution.

Critics charge that DC is too small to warrant congressional representation, but the District of Columbia, which is denied voting congressional representation, has a population of +/-580,000. Wyoming, which is represented in Congress by a voting U.S. House member and two voting U.S. senators, has a population of +/-515,000.

Argument Against DC Voting Rights: Constitutional Authority

Under Article I of the Constitution, only states are given the power to select representatives and senators. This ensures a stable democratic process. If Congress attempts to claim new power to determine who can and cannot vote, then voters will be enfranchised and disenfranchised every time Congress changes hands.

Nondiscriminatory Intent, Racist Consequences

If the District of Columbia were a state, it would be the only state with a non-white majority--62% African-American. Given our history, is it really a coincidence that DC is the only region in the United States where one is forced to pay taxes without having a vote in Congress?

Critics say yes, pointing to the fact that when the District was predominantly white, it had substantially less power than it has today. DC was only allowed to participate in presidential elections in 1961, to elect its own mayor and City Council in 1967, and to select non-voting House representation in 1971.

Party Affiliation and Political Motives

What Democrats Say: Efforts to extend voting rights to DC have consistently been defeated by Republican legislators. DC voters tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic in presidential elections, and have consistently selected Democrats when choosing their non-voting House delegate. Is the Republican objection to DC voting rights a simple matter of not wanting one more Democratic vote in the House?

What Republicans Say: Sure, Republicans benefit from the fact that DC residents can't vote for congressional representatives--but Democrats would gain an additional seat in the House under the current proposal. Is the DC voting rights movement ultimately about increasing the power of the Democratic Party?

Tom's Take

Opponents to DC voting rights are correct when they say that the Constitution limits congressional representation to states. In order for the District of Columbia to secure voting representation in Congress, proponents must either make DC a state or amend the Constitution.

That said, the current system of DC voter disenfranchisement is unacceptable and has distressing racial implications. Regardless of the motives of DC voting rights opponents, the effect of the policy is to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters while still forcing them to pay taxes.

Republican legislators need to look beyond political considerations and support DC voting rights, even if this means one more Democratic vote in the House.
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