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US Lawmakers Debate Giving Voting Rights to Washington, DC Residents

  • Gabe Joselow

New legislation that would give residents of Washington, D.C. a full vote in the U.S. House of Representatives is facing significant obstacles as it moves through Congress. Residents of Washington have been without a full voting representative since the city was founded more than 200 years ago.

The District of Columbia was created by the country's founders to serve as the center of the new U.S. government. Its residents were expected at that time to be mostly temporary government workers.

As a result, the founders did not believe district residents needed to be given the same representation in Congress that was awarded to the states.

But unlike the federal district the founders imagined, modern Washington has grown into a major city with a population of 600,000 - more than in the western U.S. state of Wyoming. And the city's residents are no longer exclusively federal employees.

Melvin Peterson, a life-long Washington resident, says the city deserves the right to full representation.

"To think about it, to live in the capital city of the strongest nation in the world and not have the most basic right of representation is ridiculous. When Washington designed this as a district, he did not have in his mindset that we would not have a right to vote in Congress, that was not his issue," said Peterson.

Washington residents are also angry that they are required to pay federal income taxes, unlike those who live in U.S. territories that do not have representation in Congress.

The tax issue is so much of a concern for residents that the city decided to add the slogan "Taxation Without Representation" to vehicle license plates in a defiant call for voting rights. The same slogan was used by the American colonists who declared independence from Britain in 1776.

Supporters of Washington voting rights in Congress say that the lack of full political representation goes against the democratic principles that the United States promotes around the world.

This is Ilir Zherka, the executive director of D.C. Vote, a group that advocates Congressional voting right for the city.

"When we go to Iraq and when we go to Afghanistan and other countries in Europe, that's what we say to them. We say that you should have representation as people in your national legislature and you should have local control over local issues. We are strongly in favor of decentralization except when it comes to D.C.," said Zherka.

But William Van Alstyne of William and Mary Law School in Virginia says that because of the district's unique status, its residents are not guaranteed the same right to representation in Congress as the individual states.

"Representation in the House [of Representatives] and the Senate are respectively and expressly provided for persons selected in the various states, not in Guam, not in any of our territories and certainly not in the District of Columbia," he said.

Supporters of the new voting rights bill say the U.S. Constitution gives Congress legislative power over the District and that Congress can use that power to grant voting representation in the national legislature.

Ironically, Congress' legislative authority over the District is also creating the biggest challenge to passing the current legislation. Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada used this power to add a controversial amendment that would repeal most of Washington's strict gun control regulations. The amendment is strongly opposed by city officials who have fought to keep tight regulations on gun ownership.

But Washington, D.C. has won voting rights battles in the past - including in 1961, when the Constitution was amended to give District residents the right to vote in presidential elections. Ten years later, Congress allowed the district to elect a delegate to the House of Representatives. That delegate can vote in committees, but not on the final passage of legislation. The city does not have voting senators and the bill under consideration would not change that.

One of the key reasons previous voting rights efforts have failed is because adding new representatives to Congress could change the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

But Jonathan Entin of Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Ohio says the new bill addresses this concern.

"Everyone understands that the District of Columbia is an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency, which is why the bill also creates an additional seat for Utah, which is a strongly Republican state. The expectation is that those two new seats will balance each other out," he said.

If the bill currently before Congress is approved, legal experts say is likely to find its way into the courts.

"Well, if it passes, someone will probably challenge it in the courts to test its constitutionality. And I think there's a very good chance that the Supreme Court [of the United States] would find that the statute is unconstitutional," said Jacob.

If that happens, Jacob says Washington's best option would be to seek a constitutional amendment. The last time the district tried to do this failed in 1985.