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D.C. voting rights: a moral imperative

District residents have no voting representation in Congress. That needs to change.

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For the citizens of Washington, every April 16 brings a bittersweet, ironic commemoration. Emancipation Day celebrates the date President Lincoln abolished slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862. Certainly the transformation of America's capital from bond to free deserves a nod, but the date nags at another historical injustice that persists today. District citizens are still deprived of the essential right of representation in Congress. So this year, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty has dedicated Emancipation Day to fighting for D.C. voting rights, underscoring a growing grass-roots movement around the issue.

The Constitution states that Congress shall "exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever" over the district. Yet its citizens aren't allowed a representative or senator to participate in the lawmaking process. That's 580,000 US citizens who are taxed without representation, taken to war without representation, and subject to laws they have no say in devising. Even the city's budget is subject to congressionĀ­al approval, leaving local officials at the mercy of a body they don't elect.

This curious form of American peasantry began in 1801, when Congress first swept into town and stripped capital residents of their ability to vote in Maryland or Virginia. The idea of an unrepresented district citizenry was certainly anathema to the Founding Fathers, who fought a bloody revolution over the very issue, and their intentions to rectify the matter are well documented. But despite two centuries of good intentions, this tabled issue has grown from a legislative "to-do" into a civil rights crisis that challenges the legitimacy of American democracy.

Consider that the Bush administration has spent close to $1 trillion trying to spread democracy in the Middle East. Yet senior White House advisĀ­ers said they will urge the president to veto a bipartisan bill that would give one voting seat to the largely Democratic district in exchange for an additional seat for Republican Utah. The bill is currently fighting its way through the House, but presidential advisers say that the legislation is unconstitutional. The Constitution says members of Congress are elected by the people of each state. And the district, they say, is not a state. House Republicans have fought the bill on the same grounds. Incidentally, neither the legislative nor executive branches are ordained to decide matters of constitutionality.


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