The Forgotten Colonists
DC Residents Still Suffer Taxation Without Representation
No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.
Justice Hugo Black, Wesberry v. Sanders (1964).
On this the 236th anniversary of the nation’s Declaration of Independence, how many are aware that taxation without representation is alive and well today in the colonies – in the District of Columbia.
The District of Columbia’s citizens currently have no vote in Congress, but rather only have a non-voting delegate (and only since 1971). Congress also has veto authority over District of Columbia laws and imposes restrictions upon how the District of Columbia may use local funds (particularly in the area of reproductive rights and rights for domestic partners).
DC Voting: The Facts
Yes, the District of Columbia is small in size and population. Its current population of 617,996 is greater than Wyoming and slightly less than Vermont. It pays more in federal taxes than 19 states and the most of any state on a per capita basis. District residents do far more than pay their taxes, however, as in Vietnam they had more casualties than 10 states and more on a per capita basis than 47 states.
Despite this it has no vote in Congress. It has no say on whether to go to war and cannot confirm the judges who will decide its rights. Even after two international bodies found the practice to violate the human rights of District of Columbia residents there are no signs this will change anytime soon.
DC Voting and Human Rights
In the last decade, two human rights bodies have held that the denial of voting rights to D.C. residents violates international law. In 2003, the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the denial of voting representation violated Article 23 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man which provides:
1. Every citizen shall enjoy the following rights and opportunities:
a. to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
b. to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and by secret ballot that guarantees the free expression of the will of the voters; and
c. to have access, under general conditions of equality, to the public service of his country.
The Commission explained:
Despite the existence of this significant and direct legislative authority that Congress exercises over . . . residents of the District of Columbia, however, [D.C. residents] have no effective right to vote upon those legislative measures, directly or through freely chosen representatives, and it is not apparent from the record that Congress is responsible to the [residents] for those measures by some other means. In this manner, Congress exercises expansive authority over the Petitioners, and yet it is in no way effectively accountable to the . . . citizens residing in the District of Columbia.This, in the Commission’s view, has deprived [D.C. citizens] of the very essence of representative government, namely that title to government rests with the people governed
In 2006, the U.N. Human Rights Commission concluded that the denial of voting representation to D.C. citizens “does not seem compatible with article 25” of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the U.S. has ratified) which provides:
Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.
The Commission stated that the U.S. should:
ensure the right of residents of the District of Columbia to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives, in particular with regard to the House of Representatives.
There have been a variety of solutions proposed to address the plight of District residents. One of the most serious proposals was a 1978 constitutional amendment that won the requisite two-thirds Congressional approval but died in 1985 when only 16 of the required 38 states voted to ratify the amendment.
In 2007, the D.C. Voting Rights Act which would have added two seats to the House of Representatives – one for D.C. and one for Utah – passed the House of Representatives. The bill, however, fell two votes shy of the 60 votes needed to break the Republican filibuster in the Senate.
I personally would like to see a hybrid of the two that treats the District of Columbia like a state purposes of the House of Representatives but also gives it one vote in the Senate so that it has a voice in confirmations and even impeachments.
On this Fourth of July, however, what is needed is a recognition that a solution is important and that it should not be delayed or denied simply because of how that vote would be exercised.