Promoting the Right to Vote: Enfranchising Our Nation’s Capital

Updated July 8, 2010

Our Position

It is a betrayal of America’s principles that we deny residents of our nation’s capital the right to vote. Nearly 600,000 Americans live in Washington, DC, and they deserve the right to representation in Congress like everyone else. What they have now – a non-voting delegate to the House – is not nearly enough to make their voice heard in Congress. We must take steps to fully enfranchise Americans living in our nation’s capital.

Talking Points

DC’s lack of self-determination has made it a target for conservative overreach. Washington, DC is one of the country’s most liberal jurisdictions, with progressive views on a wide variety of issues. But since Washingtonians have no representation in Congress, they are powerless to resist when conservatives push through laws to force right-wing policies on the District just to score points with their base at home. Over the years, Congress has stymied LGBT equality, limited reproductive choice, and forced DC to adopt a private school voucher program. Congress once even prohibited the DC government from counting ballots in a local referendum that conservatives were afraid they had lost.

Even when DC asserts its will, the District doesn’t necessarily have final say. Current law requires that any bill passed by the DC Council and signed by the mayor must be forwarded to Congress for a 30-day (in some limited cases, 60-day) review period. If Congress and the President sign a resolution of disapproval, that bill never becomes law. If they don’t act then and the bill survives, it’s possible they could act to take down the law by budget or legislative amendment. Because DC has only a nonvoting delegate, the citizens of the District have no voice when the fate of their local laws is being decided.

Any citizen who pays taxes, and is otherwise legally eligible to vote, should be able to vote. American colonists were subject to taxes imposed by a body (Parliament) in which they had no representation, and “no taxation without representation” became a rallying cry of the American Revolution. Elections ensure that officials are held accountable for their actions, and that they act with the consent of the governed. DC residents are taxed by a Congress in which they have no voting representation, which violates America’s most basic values. They should be able to vote.

Our men and women in uniform do not enjoy the benefits at home of the democracy they are fighting for abroad. No member of the armed services should be robbed of the right to vote simply because of where they live. During Vietnam, we lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 because it was un-American to draft people into combat who had no representation in the Congress that was deciding their fate. Today, DC servicemembers have no voice on whether to go to war, or on funding for the Department of Defense. American servicemembers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are willing to die for their country. Lawmakers should let them know that they are all worthy of representation.

DC is the capital of the world’s leading democracy, yet full democracy does not apply in DC. Former Representative Tom Davis (R-VA11), a leading sponsor of the DC House Voting Rights Act, often told the story of a memorable tour he took of the District with an international delegation. They were shocked to learn that the District did not have voting rights. The US has many things to offer the world – a bad example of civic participation should not be one of them.

Legal scholars on both sides of the aisle believe that granting DC voting rights in the House is constitutional. Judges Kenneth Starr and Patricia Wald, Professors Viet Dinh and Charles Ogletree, and DC lawyers Walter Smith (DC Appleseed) and Rick Bress (Latham & Watkins) have all concluded that the Constitution gives Congress the authority to pass legislation that would enfranchise DC. Congress already treats DC like a state for many purposes, and it can also do this in the case of House voting rights.

Granting DC voting rights in the House is critically important – but it is only a first step. Even if DC gets voting representation in the House, much work will be left on the road toward full voting rights for DC: Americans in DC will still be denied the two voting members of the Senate that other Americans have.

Legislation

The DC House Voting Rights Act (H.R. 157 and S. 160) takes that important first step of giving DC a full Representative with the same voting power as other House members. It also adds a member to the Utah delegation. Utah barely missed getting a fourth seat after the 2000 Census, and some believe miscalculations or a flawed process were to blame. Addressing this while considering voting rights for historically Democratic DC addresses balance of power concerns in the House, as Utah is a historically Republican state.

Action

Contact your Representative and Senators and tell them that they should support voting rights for DC residents. Urge them to get behind a DC House Voting Rights Act (free of harmful amendments or motions to recommit), but let them know that both House and Senate representation are long overdue for the District. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper explaining that part of defending voting rights nationwide must be enfranchising our nation’s capital.

Further Reading

DC Vote
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)
The Leadership Conference

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