There was a great op-ed in the New York Times today explaining the historical peculiarities of why the District doesn’t have a vote in Congress – effectively creating taxation without representation in the nation’s capital.
The occasion for the op-ed is the 50th anniversary today of the ratification of the 23rd amendment, which finally gave residents of D.C. the right to vote in presidential elections. (Yes, it took a Constitutional amendment!)
It seems strange that a city so consumed with politics – and with a population greater than the state of Wyoming – didn’t get the opportunity to vote for president until the election of 1964.
The District has long been denied full voting rights, both in national politics and for its own local government.
It’s the legacy of its creation as a federal district that could be controlled by Congress, and not subject to the whims of any state government. (We can thank the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 for that.)
But as Masur writes, it’s also a legacy of racial politics dating back to the Civil War.
The District was granted an elected mayor and city council by Congress in the early 1800s, back when the only eligible voters were white men. As black men won the right to vote after the Civil War, the city became a testing ground for outlawing racial discrimination in areas like public transportation, accommodation, and hiring.
Democracy in the District didn’t last long though – by 1874, the elected city government was replaced by three commissioners appointed by the president, and many of its progressive laws were overturned.
Eventually District residents won the right to vote for president and a single delegate for the House of Representatives (albeit without full voting rights). Home rule was established in 1973, once again granting the city a mayor and city council.
But Congress can still meddle in District affairs, particularly when it comes to its budget and social issues.
An amendment to grant Washingtonians full representation in Congress was passed in 1978, but was never ratified by enough states to go into effect.
More recently, there were attempts to pass the DC Voting Rights Act, which would have given a full House member to the District, offset with an additional House member for the state of Utah.
Why, Utah? It overwhelmingly votes Republican, while D.C. overwhelmingly votes Democratic. Like Mary Matalin and James Carville, it was a match made in heaven.
Unfortunately, a poison pill was added to the legislation in the Senate that would have outlawed the District’s gun restrictions, and the bill was DOA.
There have been other suggestions on how to enfranchise Washingtonians – one of them includes ceding the residential areas of the city back to Maryland.
The original ten miles square, diamond-shaped District was created from land ceded by Maryland above the Potomac, and Virginia below the river. (Virginia took its land back in 1846, which is why the District today looks like a jagged, truncated diamond.)
No offense to Maryland, but I’d rather take my chances and hold out for the day that D.C. officially gets full voting rights.
Until then, we’ll share the status (if not the warm weather) of other territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Samoa – taxation without full representation.