Baghdadis and Washingtonians
Do residents of Iraq’s capital have a right that D.C. residents can only dream of?
January 28, 2005
On January 30, 2005, Iraqis will have the great privilege of exercising the most important democratic civil right — the right to vote for their representatives in the national parliament.
Some Iraqis, living overseas, will even be exercising this right in a number of U.S. cities, as well as several countries around the world.
What may come as a real surprise, though, to people around the world — and even to many Americans — is that the citizens of Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, are exercising a right of which the residents of Washington, D.C. can only dream.
The citizens of the capital of the United States have been denied the basic democratic right to participate in the elections for their nation’s legislature for over 200 years.
That the residents of Washington, D.C. are deprived of full voting representation in both the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate is due to an anomaly of history.
Not just Americans, but in fact people all around the world, connect the history of the American Revolution with the battle cry “No Taxation Without Representation.”
It provided the powerful backdrop to one of the most memorable events of all of American history — the so-called Boston Tea Party. Settlers living in the English Colonies of North America in the 1700s were taxed on various goods in order to pay for wars being fought by the British Crown.
At the same time, English law prohibited taxation without representation for those living in England — but allowed such taxation on those who lived in the wider empire.
The phrase was born out of the protests against these burdensome taxes.
When the North American colonies finally gained independence from the British in 1776, they began the process of establishing representative government.
Yet, when Congress arrived to take up residence in the new capital city in 1801, it did something very colonial and British. It passed legislation disenfranchising the people living in the District of Columbia.
Since that time, and for over 200 years by now, Washington, D.C. has been the home of “Taxation Without Representation”.
In addition, Washingtonians have no representation of any kind in the U.S. Senate — and only a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.
Furthermore, since the U.S. Congress acts as Washington, D.C.’s “state” legislature, local citizens are also denied voting representation in a state legislative body.
Though the District of Columbia does have a locally elected mayor and city council, all locally passed laws must be sent to the U.S. Congress for review.
And, wouldn’t you know it, the U.S. Congress has frequently overruled decisions of the locally elected government. It has even overturned citizen-passed ballot initiatives.
Without a vote in Congress, the District’s citizens are denied a voice in national decisions that affect every aspect of their daily lives — including public health and healthcare, safety, education, economic policies and home ownership.
Yet, as keen as his administration is to ensure fundamental rights to Iraqis, it has not ensured liberty and freedom in its most basic form for the residents of Washington, D.C.
Moreover, while the current administration has spent more than $150 billion — and plans on spending another $80 billion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the residents of the District of Columbia are not allowed to spend a single penny of collected taxes on lobbying for full voting representation.
But the ironies go on. Take the case of Specialist Marcus Gray. He is 22 years old, a D.C. resident — and a recent returnee from the frontline in Iraq. He recently said, “We expect equal treatment, and the Army tries hard to see that all soldiers are treated equally.
“However, I want equal treatment at home as well. I want the same voting representation in the House and the Senate as other soldiers….This step would make me as proud as I will be to see the Iraqi people go to the polls on January 30.”
Specialist Marcus Gray’s request is simple enough: He merely wants what is the birthright of every citizen of every democracy. If he must fight for Iraqi democracy, he and all other Washington, D.C. residents should be afforded full democracy at home.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s Democratic Delegate to the House of Representatives, supported Spc. Gray: “Our country and most democracies would find the withdrawal of voting rights intolerable anywhere in the world,” she said, “Imagine if somebody tried to take back Baghdad’s vote after the election.”
Every year, Delegate Norton sponsors legislation in the House of Representatives to provide for full voting representation in the U.S. Congress for the citizens of the District of Columbia — and every year the legislation falls short of being passed.
Though Delegate Norton is a Democrat, the issue of D.C. voting rights has bipartisan support. Tom Davis, the Republican from Virginia who is Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Government Reform, plans on introducing legislation providing greater representation for DC residents.
At a recent summit on DC voting rights, Representative Davis provided powerful testimony about what cemented the issue in his mind. He told his audience about a visit to East Asia, where he encouraged the Vice Mayor of Hong Kong to increase democracy in his city.
The Vice Mayor told him, “Give your nation’s capital the right to vote and then come talk to us about democracy in Hong Kong.”
The current truth is an uncomfortable one, to be sure. The United States of America is the only democratic nation in the world to deny the residents living in its national capital city representation in the national legislature.
There is no legitimate argument for the current state of affairs. In terms of population, the District of Columbia has nearly 80,000 more people living in it than the entire state of Wyoming — and is close in population to seven other states: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont.
On a per capita basis, District residents pay some of the highest taxes in the United States. They are, in fact, second only to the residents of the State of Connecticut.
Moreover, DC residents have risked and lost their lives to ensure that the upcoming elections in Iraq take place. Yet, Washingtonians have no Congressional representation in their own hometown.
As the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The Bush Administration is firmly committed to helping the citizens of Baghdad to have full voting rights.
If for no other reason, now is high time for the same form of justice to come to the residents of the District of Columbia as well.
Executive Director of DC Vote Ilir Zherka is the Executive Director of DC Vote, an educational and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Its mission is to secure full voting representation in Congress for the residents of the District of Columbia. A life-long advocate and respected voice of civil, human and worker rights in both […]