Pop quiz: What three groups of taxpaying American citizens are systematically denied representation in Congress?
Unless you’re totally oblivious, you’re probably aware that citizens under 18 years of age can’t vote. And you might also know that convicted felons are kept off the voter rolls in many states. But if you are like most college-educated Americans, you probably don’t know that the 570,000 citizens of Washington, D.C. (my home town), have no representation in the federal legislature, despite paying federal income taxes and serving in the armed forces.
Are you surprised by the irony that the citizens who live in the very capital of our democracy are spectators to the democratic process? You shouldn’t be. It’s been that way for nearly two centuries. But you should be outraged.
Washington residents’ lack of voting rights is a blemish on America’s record and a moral outrage. It’s also a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which holds that all people should have a voice in the government under which they live.
This afternoon, Washington mayor Anthony Williams ’79 will deliver an address in Battell Chapel on the widespread revitalization that has swept across the city under his auspices. You can be certain he’ll at least touch on the city’s crusade to get the vote in Congress.
How did the United States become the world’s only country to deny voting rights to the residents of its capital city? A brief history lesson is in order.
Article I of the Constitution explains that each state shall be apportioned two senators and a number of representatives proportional to its population. Nowhere does it explicitly state that the residents of the District of Columbia shall have no voice in the federal legislature. In fact, it is generally accepted among constitutional historians that Congress had no intention of disenfranchising the citizens of Washington. It was assumed, but not codified, that Washington residents would continue to vote in either Maryland or Virginia, as they had done prior to the city’s establishment as the national capital.
But for reasons mysteriously lost to history, the Framers’ assumption was not carried out in practice. Though no law was ever passed to disenfranchise D.C. citizens, they no longer had a vote in Congress after the city became the national capital in 1800. As early as 1803, a bill was proposed to remedy the situation. And there have been many since. But here we are today, 200 years later, and Washington residents still have no vote.
To make matters worse, the Constitution provides Congress with the ultimate power to overturn any law passed by the D.C. city government.
As a result, Washingtonians have often suffered under the social agendas of congressmen whose opinions couldn’t be farther from their own. Congress has tampered with District budgets, denied local women access to abortion, rewritten local anti-discrimination laws, and even determined the hours of operation for local swimming pools. In one recent egregiously undemocratic move, Congress disallowed the tallying of votes on a ballot referendum and ultimately forbade the implementation of the measure even though it had been approved by an overwhelming majority of the citizens who voted.
Two years ago, the citizens of the District of Columbia took their case to the Supreme Court. But the Court refused to hear their argument on the grounds that the Constitution explicitly asserts that each state shall have a vote in Congress, and the District of Columbia is clearly not a state. But, this strict reading of the constitution missed the mark. The 14th amendment provides all citizens equal protection under the law. That means all citizens ought to have an equal voice in selecting elected officials.
With the Supreme Court’s refusal to grant certiorari to the District’s case, it has become clear that the most promising route for District residents to get the vote is through congressional action or a constitutional amendment. Either method will require the support of American citizens across the country. All Americans should stand with the residents of Washington and say that taxation without representation is undemocratic and un-American. Until the residents of D.C. are given the vote, we cannot call our nation a true democracy.
Joshua Foer is a sophomore in Silliman College.