Amid the much-touted burgeoning democracy in Iraq, the controversial elections in New Orleans, and the excitement of this year's increasingly promising Congressional elections, a centuries-old issue has managed to be kept on the back burner and under wraps, rendering voiceless more than half a million American citizens living in the capital of the greatest democracy in the world.
Matters of constitutional rights that hinder our democratic process impact every national policy decision, from the war in Iraq to immigration reform, from healthcare to education, and from network neutrality to environmental protection. Because of their universal effect on the decisions made through our democratic process, such matters should certainly leave us trying to bring them to the forefront of national media and congressional debate; but the pointed and racially-motivated reasoning behind this particular matter should leave us nothing less than astounded and disgusted.
As recently as 2005, polls show that only 18% of Americans and only 1 in 10 of our nation's next generation of voters and leaders (aged 18-34) know of the District's lack of congressional voting rights. Since 1999, awareness among college graduates, the study's most informed group, has dropped from 45% to a 36%. Even among those who know the plight of District residents, fallacies about the contributions of Washingtonians on a national level have clouded the debate. Almost one in every four Americans' decisions on the issue is formed based on the misconception that DC residents pay no federal income taxes, which many view as a prerequisite for voting rights, and almost four in ten Americans falsely believe that DC citizens pay no state or local income taxes. Neither of these absurd notions could be farther from the truth. In fact, District residents pay higher per capita taxes than residents of 49 of the 50 states. Beyond taxation, District citizens contribute to the federal government as much as any other state: they have sent troops to fight and die in every war in U.S. history (even though they had no say in the foreign policy behind these wars), they facilitate American justice by serving on juries, they have a population larger than that of Wyoming, and similar to those of six other states, and their gross state economic output ranks higher than those of 14 other states.
Despite low visibility and an ingrained sense of status quo, in the past decade in particular voices have been raised in order to boost awareness and inspire action and legislation. Polls show that, when informed of District residents' disenfranchisement, 82% of Americans support equal voting rights for District residents. Yet, since 1961's ratification of the 23rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted DC residents the right to vote in presidential elections, District residents have seen no significant increase in federal representation. (So-called "shadow representatives," one in the House and two in the Senate, as well as one delegate to the House, have been instated and allowed to debate, and, in the case of the delegate, vote in committee but not on the floor; but, these nominal positions do not provide DC residents with anything close to full voting rights.) Since its introduction to the House on May 3, 2005, Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA)'s H.R. 2043, "DC Fairness in Representation Act" ("DC FAIR Act"), appears to be following the seemingly inevitable path of all the previous attempts to legislatively or judicially challenge the institutionalized disenfranchisement of DC residents, due to inaction and a lack of constituent awareness and pressure. This act, which would give the District its first (and singular) voting representative in the House (as well as granting Utah an additional seat, to counter concerns of partisanship), is viewed as a compromise to the stronger, but less achievable, "No Taxation Without Representation Act of 2005" (S. 195 and H.R. 398), introduced earlier that year by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I know, it pisses me off, too, when he's the good guy) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), which would treat DC as any other state in terms of full voting representation. More ideal solutions such as actual statehood or even retrocession to Maryland have consistently been shut down in both the House and the Senate.
As our troops are off dying for the democratization of Iraq (as part of a war permitted by a legislature with no voice for the District), as federal incompetence on a criminal scale has effectively disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of predominantly black and low-income voters during a crucial period of physical and infrastructural reconstruction in another one of America's great cities, and as we march ever closer to the possibility of a serious Democratic comeback in the upcoming congressional elections, I urge you, reader, to take a moment to inform yourself on the disgraceful situation in our nation's capital, and realize that disregard and inaction on this issue undermine the very fabric of our democracy.
Though it is far from the ultimate goal of gaining full voting rights in Washington, DC, the "DC FAIR Act" is an important and attainable first battle in this two-hundred-year-old fight to give a voice to hundreds of thousands of silenced citizens all living in neighborhoods within 15 miles of the very Congress to which their disenfranchisement is due. The juxtaposition of the physical proximity of these voiceless citizens to the seat of federal legislative power and the distance from which those citizens must long for the right to participate in it ought to rouse those citizens lucky enough to be represented in Congress to action and compel those representatives to legislate serious voting rights reform for the residents of Washington, DC.
Arm yourself with information on the issue by visiting the website of one of the three leading DC voting rights advocacy groups, DC Vote, FairVote and The DC Statehood Party, and urge your representatives to prevent the DC FAIR Act from meeting the fate of previous attempts to end the disenfranchisement by supporting the first real step toward bringing democracy to our nation's capital.