Disenfranchisement: The Case for the 51st State?

You might know this story well. It begins with a grievance, summed up in a neat little slogan: “No Taxation Without Representation.” Both sides in the American Revolution struggled to agree on what that “representation” meant in practice. The British believed in “virtual representation,” which simply means that that every member of Parliament virtually represented every person in the empire. Having subscribed to this belief, there wasn’t a need to bring in representatives from other regions, like the American colonies. American colonists believed in physical representation. They wanted members in Parliament to specifically represent the colonies’ interests.

Further encroaching measures, such as the Proclamation of 1763 that closed down colonial westward expansion and the new 1765 Stamp Act tax, added tension to these grievances. Even physical representation would come with its seemingly insurmountable challenges: communicating across the Atlantic Ocean with ambassadors, who would be effectively outnumbered anyway. “No Taxation Without Representation” came to be a call for independent governance, and thus the creation of a country founded on a vision that power comes from the people, that these people have inalienable rights, that the social contract between the people and the government should be bound in the Constitution, and that private property was an expression of liberty.

“No Taxation Without Representation” has a fascinating and multifaceted history. The phrase was later used by other marginalized and disenfranchised groups. It was notably used by Sarah E. Wall, a Women’s Suffrage activist, refused to pay taxes until women were granted the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony cited her courage in a speech she delivered on a tour after being arrested on charges of voting illegally in the 1872 federal election. (The title of her address is “Is it a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?”) Today millions of Americans continue to use the slogan: felons, ex-felons, and residents of the District of Columbia, among others. (The Sentencing Project, a national non-profit criminal justice organization located in Washington D.C., reports that 5.8 million Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction. )

Disenfranchisement can occur in a variety of ways: citizens may not be allowed to vote at elections, or they may not be not be represented in government. For the residents of the District of Columbia the “No Taxation Without Representation” slogan is used to summarize their primary grievance: they pay federal taxes but are not represented in Congress.

The irony is jumps off the page: the capital of the nation that originally revolted because it was being taxed and not represented is being taxed without being represented.

The topic is actually a lot messier than it seems. On the surface, the idea that about 670 thousand Americans are not represented in Congress is astonishing. The population in the District of Columbia is larger than that of the states of Wyoming and Vermont. Both Wyoming and Vermont have the same representation in Congress as the more populous New York and California, whereas the District of Columbia is allowed 1 non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

You can watch a speech Delegate Norton made when the House was considering H.R. 1905, the DC Voting Rights Act below.

She sharply brings up up the partisan character of the D.C Statehood movement by saying, “If the District of Columbia was a largely Republican city, these members would be on the floor arguing for voting rights for the District of Columbia.” The fight between Republicans and Democrats for control of the houses in Congress has left Washington D.C. without representation in the House and Senate and without control over its legislation and budget. The District of Columbia has historically put Democrats in local office. Should the District become a state, it would probably elect Democratic delegates to Congress and thus disadvantage the Republican Party’s attempt to retain control of Congress. Thus we end in a gridlock between the two dominant political parties of the United States that leaves over 670 thousand Americans without a voice. Indeed, it was not until 1961 that D.C. residents were even granted the right to even vote for President.

The movement for D.C. statehood has been gaining momentum. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has set forth a plan to make “New Columbia” the 51st state. According to the National Interest, this new plan consists of the National Mall and a few bits of land and buildings that immediately surround the Mall, to be called “New Washington.” First, a November referendum would sample the favorability of statehood, followed by a petition and convention to draft and ratify a constitution. New Columbia would exclude a federal enclave and thus circumventing the need to make a constitutional amendment.

Arguments against D.C. Statehood are grounded in the Constitution. Roger Pilon, the founding director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, argues that the Constitution states that the federal government  does not have the power to create a new state out of the District of Columbia. The Constitution does not distinguish between “the seat of the Government of the United States” and the “District” in which the government is seated. Thus, the District IS the seat of government. Some have argued that the case for D.C. statehood is “the biggest potential affirmative action case in America, but no one takes it to court because it’s “constitutional.” Some worry that statehood might mean that New Columbia would wield too much influence on the federal government and thus leave a select few with far more power that the rest of the country.

Because the partisan problem is that D.C. would add more Democratic representatives, another solution has been presented: give D.C. back to Maryland, with the exception of a reduced federally-controlled piece of land. In 1791, Maryland and Virginia both ceded land to create the District. The land below the Potomac River was retroceded to Virginia in 1847, thus precedent exists to support this solution. It would correct the disenfranchisement of Washingtonians, but some argue it would change the population makeup of Maryland substantially. In all, there is no clear cut, overwhelmingly supported solution. What we have is more than 670 thousand disenfranchised Americans and a centuries old problem. The November elections are incredibly important. And the next President could set the wheels in motion toward achieving a final solution.

So where do our Presidential candidates stand on this issue? Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton supports the movement. Republican candidate Donald Trump doesn’t “see statehood for D.C.” Green Party candidate Jill Stein supports it, and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson also supports the movement.