WASHINGTON, D.C. – (August 21, 2010) If you’re new to the District of Columbia, allow me to welcome you to America’s last colonial outpost. The District is our national capitol, you say, not a colony; well, my friend, think again. Residents of the District of Columbia, all approximately 600,000 of them, are little more than natives of a large federal reservation, required to put money into the federal coffers in the form of taxes, but who do not have the right to vote for the Senators who represent the rest of the country.
The District was established in 1790 on land ceded from the state of Maryland. There was originally land from Virginia as well, but that was returned to that state in 1846. Originally, District residents weren’t even allowed to vote for the President. That was changed by the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution in 1961, which gave the District three electoral votes for the President. The District also has a delegate in the House of Representatives, who is not allowed to participate in floor votes, but who can vote in committees. There are also shadow Senators and Representatives, but they’re not recognized by the Congress. Here’s a tidbit that might surprise you: until 2008, Congress prohibited the District from spending money to lobby for voting rights or statehood.
The question of full voting rights for the citizens of the District of Columbia has been at the center of a contentious debate since it was founded. The arguments for and against are legion.
The most compelling argument for granting full voting rights is the concept of “the consent of the governed.” This was recognized even by some of the founding fathers. It is one of the basic tenets of democracy that a government must have the consent of its citizens – and at least no one has ever argued that DC residents are not citizens.
Some of the arguments against, if analyzed dispassionately, actually support granting full franchise. The District is insignificant, and here I think most people are referring to population size. News flash, ladies and gentlemen, the District has a larger population than the state of Wyoming, and no one objects to that western state having two Senators and a Representative. How about this one? The District exists on federal subsidies and doesn’t contribute anything in return. In 2005, 33% of the District’s budget came from federal subsidies as opposed to 30% on average for the states. In that same year, however, 32 states received more federal money than they paid in federal taxes. In 2007, the District paid $20.4 billion in federal taxes, more than 19 states, and had the highest per capita federal taxes. I don’t suppose it would sway those against voting rights to point out that one of the reasons the District must receive such high federal subsidies is that most of the real estate here is owned by the federal government and the District can’t tax it, or that it cannot impose an income tax on federal workers from out of state, such as commuters from Virginia and Maryland.
The debate will, I predict, continue to rage; but there is no settlement or resolution in sight. I hope I’m proven wrong on this, but I’m not holding my breath waiting. Democrats want it because it adds to their tally. Republicans hate the idea for the same reason. Ain’t no way the District will ever be won by the Republican Party. In the meantime, the arguments both for and against will continue to be based on urban legend, misinterpretations, and fear mongering, while the colonials go about the business of surviving from day to day.