WASHINGTON – When the colonies broke off from British control to become the United States, one of their rallying cries was “no taxation without representation.” Now, 243 years later, license plates in the nation’s capital city bear the same message — a protest against not having voting representation in Congress, despite having a population of over 600,000 and paying the highest federal taxes per capita of any state.
Historians say the Founding Fathers intended to give the District of Columbia voting rights, but they never quite decided how and when.
Activists, lawyers and politicians have raised different iterations of the charge for decades, centuries even. They’ve won related battles along the way, but fallen short on the main goal.
Now, there’s a group of lawmakers, attorneys and citizens that are employing different means to change that, and gaining more traction than they have previously. Their fight is not new, but some of their strategies are.
Listen to our newest episode of the Washington Bullpen podcast on the fight for District voting rights:
The Founders were torn over how to solidify the District’s voting rights. Historical accounts indicate they didn’t want to establish the capital as a state, but that presented a challenge about how to give it the Congressional representation they felt it required.
“These folks had just risked their life and treasure to create a republic founded on the principle of no taxation without representation,” said George Derek Musgrove, historian and co-author of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. “There was really no overt sentiment among them that at the center of that new republic they were going to create a federal district where people were taxed but not represented in the national legislature.”
Debates and discussions ensued, but the issue continued to be pushed back.
“They just never come up with a good plan,” said Musgrove.
In the centuries since, the voting rights fight has taken different forms, but the last 50 years have been especially eventful. A voting rights amendment to the Constitution, Supreme Court case and voting rights act all gained significant momentum before dying because they fell short of the needed national support or faced partisan push back.
Despite these past setbacks, House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District, is optimistic about its prospects in the coming years.
“For the first time in eight years, we can now move a bill. We’ve been trying to get statehood for some time,” she said in an interview with Capital News Service. “But during my time in the Congress, which is more than a quarter of a century, we have been in the minority for most of those years. And so it has been difficult to move a bill in the House of Representatives.”
20 years ago, Walter Smith was part of the legal team that lost a District of Columbia voting rights case brought before the Supreme Court. He went back to the drawing board, and in the last few years, the executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice formed a new legal theory.
It hinges on a little-known part of the U.S. Constitution: the District Clause. This cluster of less than 100 words gives Congress control over the District, including the final say in its local government.
The clause unlocked a whole new legal argument for Smith, and one he said is stronger than the previous case.
“It lets us say that it violates equal protection and due process and the First Amendment to refuse to give us the vote,” he said.
Just as Congress has ultimate power over the District, it has ultimate power over its voting rights. Smith said by withholding those rights, Congress is acting unconstitutionally.
If he and his team win, the District would not become the 51st state, but it would get voting representation in Congress like any other state. It’s a different argument from the previous case, which centered on statehood.
It also corrects what Christopher Wright, an attorney on the case, says is a series of inexcusable injustices.
“Somebody from Wisconsin actually has more influence on the District’s legislation than somebody from the District,” Wright said.
That’s because residents of outside states, like Wisconsin, have voting representation in Congress. And Congress is the ultimate decision maker for the District.
On an even larger scale, due to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, people who move overseas from the United States have more power than District residents.
“If you move from, you know, Bethesda to Mumbai, you continue to have representation in Congress,” Wright said. “But if you move across Western Avenue or Eastern Avenue to the district, you lose a vote.”
As the District’s non-voting delegate to the House for 28 years, Norton is one of the most prominent voices in this movement. It directly impacts her job, because although she has many of the same powers as other representatives, she doesn’t get a final vote on the House floor.
“(That) is what the people I represent do not have and what we’re on our way to get,” Norton said.
It’s a fight that’s also personal to her as a lifelong resident of the District.
“I came to office as a resident of the District of Columbia and was born here and who’s a third generation Washingtonian. And so I have seen my family, which goes back to well before the Civil War, never have the same rights as other Americans,” Norton said. “And because I represent the District, and I’ve had to fight so many fights that would not have to fight if we were a state.”
Norton is pushing forward a bill to make the District a state, which she says is the most absolute way to secure its autonomy.
Bipartisan support has been hard to come by for these measures, but Norton is not letting that phase her. She emphasized how the bill is getting record-setting support in the House. It’s set to have a hearing this week.
However, things could get thorny in the Senate. If the District becomes a state or secures voting rights, it would almost certainly spell out two more Democratic senators, as it consistently leans liberal. This could garner Republican pushback.
“It could affect the balance of power in the Senate…The fact that that scenario is possible, I think illustrates why there may be serious Republican opposition to this,” Smith said.
Norton said securing Senate support will become a greater focus after the upcoming election.
“I don’t think the Senate is paying too much attention to this bill yet,” Norton said. “They’re much more worried about high visibility national issues, like the economy and immigration. This will become a big issue after the 2020 election for the Senate.”
Although the fight for voting rights exists in the context of partisan discourse in Washington, Smith said it’s vital to remember why advocates have been working at this for so long.
“This is not about partisan politics,” Smith said. “This is about basic American rights.”
Podcast Music: “Wide Eyes” by Chad Crouch, “IA 04” by Andrew Sack, and “Beat Cook Up” by JBlanked.