Democracy for D.C.: Allow Statehood, Not ‘Voting Rights’

Posted January 24, 2007 at 6:41pm

Many advocates of voting rights for the District of Columbia are disappointed that Democrats haven’t moved faster on a bill that Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) have proposed to grant Washington a vote in the House.

Perhaps Democratic leaders in Congress realized that the Davis bill is a trap: Since it also gives Utah a new seat, Republicans will gain a new Electoral College vote.

Furthermore, if it faces a lawsuit, the bill may be found unconstitutional. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution provides voting representation in Congress solely to states. A decision by the U.S. District Court for D.C. in 2000 (Daley v. Alexander) held that “the Constitution does not contemplate that the District may serve as a state for purposes of the apportionment of Congressional representatives.”

The Davis bill contains a nonseverability clause, but a temporary injunction may allow Utah its new voting seat while Ms. Norton’s vote would be blocked until a ruling is issued.

For these reasons and others, many D.C. democracy activists have declined to endorse the Davis bill. Some have noted that, while other Americans enjoy three voting seats (two Senators and one Representative), D.C. residents get a single voting seat, making them “one-third citizens.”

It thus recalls the 1787 Three-Fifths Compromise that labeled slaves three-fifths citizens for purposes of voting apportionment in Congress — a stinging insult for a city with an African-American majority.

Nor would the Davis bill give D.C. residents democratic self-governance, because it doesn’t affect the power of Congress and the White House to force unwanted laws and policies on D.C. and to veto locally passed legislation.

In 1998, Congress overturned a ballot measure for medical marijuana that had passed with a 69 percent majority. Congress has forced D.C. to adopt “zero tolerance” laws, ordered (through the appointed Financial Control Board) then-Mayor Anthony Williams (D) to dismantle D.C. General Hospital, imposed a charter school system, and outlawed needle exchange to prevent HIV transmission.

Representatives of surrounding districts in Virginia and Maryland have used their power to prohibit D.C. from taxing commuters and to demand a new convention center to be paid for with a D.C. surtax, for the profit of suburban businesses. Members of Congress have sought to overturn gun control laws, enact the death penalty, impose school vouchers and deny benefits for same-sex couples. In 1997, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called D.C. a “laboratory” for Republican policies.

African-Americans who moved to D.C. for federal jobs in the 1950s and discovered their new status called it America’s “last plantation.”

Without political autonomy, representation in a legislature cannot be called democracy. Throughout history, colonies have enjoyed voting seats in the legislatures of nations that conquered them, even while they suffered exploitation and oppression. Our own Founding Fathers and Mothers fought for democracy and independence, not “voting rights.” Patrick Henry never said, “Give me a vote in Parliament or give me death.”

At best, the Davis bill is a temporary measure. Congress would retain power to revoke the D.C. vote and repeal the District’s limited home rule and may do so if Republicans regain control. If D.C. were a state, Congress would not revoke its autonomy. Except for Southern states after they rebelled, Congress has never rescinded any state’s power to govern itself.

D.C. statehood now!

Groups like the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. Coalition and the DC Statehood Green Party have argued that only self-determination and self-government — statehood — will end the second-class citizenship of D.C. residents.

If a court rules that a voting seat for D.C. requires a constitutional amendment, then, procedurally, D.C. statehood will be easier to achieve, since statehood would not require ratification by two-thirds of states necessary for an amendment.

In 1846, an act of Congress removed Arlington from the District and ceded it to Virginia, proving that, by simple majority, Congress may alter D.C.’s borders. Congress could therefore reduce the constitutionally mandated federal enclave to encompass only the federal properties (White House, Capitol, Mall, etc.), freeing the rest of D.C. to choose statehood by a plebiscite vote.

D.C. could then be admitted to the union as a state, as were all other states after the initial 13 colonies. D.C. residents would get their two Senators and one Representative. We’d see the first state with an African-American majority; Americans all over the U.S. who live in cities, and who are now underrepresented, would have permanent voices in Congress speaking for their interests.

The Statehood Green Party and Stand Up! coalition recently drafted a petition for D.C. statehood (www.dcstatehoodgreen.org/statehoodnow) to be sent to the U.N. Committee on Human Rights and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which monitor compliance with treaties that the U.S. has signed and ratified. In 2006, the Human Rights Committee found that D.C.’s lack of voting representation in Congress violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ruling was the result of a decade of work by democracy advocate Tim Cooper.

Poll after poll has shown that an overwhelming majority of D.C. residents desire statehood. On Jan. 3, they applauded Mayor Adrian Fenty’s (D) inaugural speech when he demanded statehood for the nation’s capital. (Mayor Fenty undermined his demand a few days later when he said he’d go over the heads of voters and ask Congress to amend the D.C. Charter to strip the board of education of its powers.)

Since the start of the Iraq War, President Bush has sent young men and women from D.C. to face death fighting, allegedly, for the democratic rights of Iraqis — rights they don’t enjoy at home in the capital of the free world. America owes these soldiers and their families — and all residents of Washington, D.C. — the same rights, citizenship and democracy all other Americans enjoy.

Scott McLarty is media coordinator for the DC Statehood Green Party and national media coordinator of the Green Party of the United States.