A New Way Forward on DC Voting Rights?

If you’ve ever been to my home city, Washington, DC, you’ve probably noticed that the license plates say “Taxation without Representation.” That’s because DC residents (like Puerto Ricans and inhabitants of the US territories and “overseas possessions”) are not represented in Congress by voting members. Instead, we have a non-voting delegate, much like the American Colonies had “virtual representation” in the British Parliament. Congress is supposed to have our interests at heart when they legislate, even though they are not accountable to us. In practice, this means they generally vote with their home districts and states in mind, so DC’s autonomy takes a backseat to the politics of places far away. The fact that the majority of the disenfranchised are African-American is also worth considering.

Many people in the District of Columbia were dismayed by the failure of the 2009 DC House Voting Rights Act. This act would have granted the District a single vote in the House of Representatives, but the price was too high: Congressional Republicans demanded that DC take a strong pro-gun rights stance in a city that was only recently the “Murder Capital.” Beyond the practical objections, John Ensign’s amendment violated the principles of autonomy that the Voting Rights Act itself was designed to further. Of course, only a few months later we lost the same battle in the Supreme Court when SCOTUS ruled that DC’s gun regulations were an unconstitutional violation of the 2nd Amendment, in light of which the objections to the Republicans’ plans look quite unfortunate.

But consider this: the DC House Voting Rights Act would have granted us only a single vote in the House of Representatives, where we would have been one of 437 others (because Utah would have been granted a corresponding vote) and no votes at all in the Senate. That’s a very dilute power. Yet another plan could give us two Senators and vote in the House of Representatives.

All we’d have to do is rejoin Maryland:

In Chaffetz’s idea, most of what we now call Washington, D.C., could become Washington, Maryland.

“It’s our nation’s capital and the Constitution deals with it in a unique way,” Chaffetz says. “Washington, D.C., is not a state. My proposal is stronger than Eleanor Holmes Norton’s proposal, because I’d like to see it retroceded back into a state.”

What’s wrong with this plan? (Other than the fact that it’s being proposed by a Republican?)

Of course, this would shake up Maryland politics quite a bit. Like the conflict between New York City and New York State, “downstate interests” would more frequently come into conflict with the interests of Baltimore and Annapolis. To my mind this is one of its strengths.

Whereas now rule is divided between local mayoral control and the District Council, as a part of Maryland we would gain a say in both Federal and Maryland politics. No one can deny that Maryland’s decisions affect DC, so participation in Annapolis might be almost as valuable as participation in the Senate! It would double the number of layers of control between us and national politics, and multiply the avenues of recourse  and counter-power. Though it seems strange, I believe we’d have more power by sharing it with Marylanders than we have now “going it alone.” Sovereignty and power increase the more they are divided and set in competition: that’s why we have a divided Federal government (and “checks and balances” between them) and the same principle ought to guide us in our pursuit of true “Home Rule.”

One thought on “A New Way Forward on DC Voting Rights?”

Second Opinions