On the drive from my hometown of Atlanta, Ga., last week, I had a lot of time to look at license plates: “Georgia . on my mind,” North Carolina’s “First in Flight” and Ohio’s “Birthplace of Aviation,” among others. (Sounds like North Carolina and Ohio need to duke that one out.) But the most interesting motto appeared as we made a side trip to Washington, D.C. Stuck in traffic, I examined the plate on the taxi in front of us: “Taxation Without Representation.”
Like a true college student, I immediately thought of “The Colbert Report.” On Election Night 2006, Stephen Colbert “interviewed” D.C.’s Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. As a non-voting delegate, Holmes Norton may vote in committee but not on the floor. This leaves Washington, D.C. residents effectively voiceless in Congress. While she tried to respond to his commentary on that night’s Democratic victory, Colbert resolutely ignored her.
Out in the Midwest, it’s easy to think of the capital in terms of politicians per capita and forget that other people live there, too. But as a nation intent on fostering international democracy, we’ve disenfranchised the entire District of Columbia.
According to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, only states may have voting Congressional representatives, and Washington, D.C. is not a state. When the Constitution was written, though, the district was not yet the nation’s capital, and even after it became the capital, only politicians lived there. In fact, it was years from having a civilian population. But as a part of the United States, the District of Columbia paid federal taxes, yet was barred from voting in Congress. Today, nothing has changed.
Actually, a lot has changed. In 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that an estimated 581,530 people live in the district without Congressional representation.
Now, it would be inaccurate to say that the Founding Fathers wanted universal suffrage. After all, America had to go through a few civil rights movements to include citizens of other races, classes and genders in the voting constituency. However, our laws have evolved to account for the things the Founding Fathers didn’t consider. Couldn’t we also account for the more than 500,000 Americans now living in a stateless city?
But the problem is more complex than a mere case of conflicting constitutional semantics. Because the population of the capital is primarily black, proponents of equal representation contend that critics are hesitant to enfranchise such a large group of minorities. The racial factor has certainly slowed the progress of this movement. Really, it brings back some painful memories to see that our 21st century federal government is still slow to give equal representation to a city that is about 57 percent black.
Granted, the seemingly common-sense solution is as complex as the problem. If Washington, D.C. gained a voting representative in the House, the Electoral College would need to expand, conflicting with the 23rd Amendment. That amendment, which awarded the city electors, says that it may not have more electors than the least populous state. Currently, that’s Wyoming, which also has a smaller population than the district. Furthermore, giving the District of Columbia such a representative would create more questions about the differentiation between a city and a state, like whether or not it should have senators. And, if the district was to cross into the realm of statehood, would it lose its federal funding, effectively crippling the city?
While giving Washington, D.C.’s residents the same voting rights as the rest of the population would cause difficulties, ignoring the problem should no longer be an acceptable solution. If we believe we can bring democracy to the war-torn Middle East, then why is it so impossible to bring democracy to our capital? Quoting the Constitution has never been an appropriate argument against equal representation.
After all, we have amendments for a reason.
Emmarie Huetteman is the summer associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.