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Debate: Washington, DC voting rights

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Should DC residents have the right to vote in Presidential and Congressional elections?

Background and context

Voting rights of citizens in the District of Columbia differ from those of United States citizens in each of the fifty states. District of Columbia residents do not have voting representation in the United States Senate, but D.C. is entitled to three electoral votes for President. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the District is entitled to a delegate, who is not allowed to vote on the floor of the House, but can vote on procedural matters and in House committees.
The United States Constitution grants congressional voting representation to the states, which the District is not. The District is a federal territory ultimately under the complete authority of Congress. The lack of voting representation in Congress for residents of the U.S. capital has been an issue since the foundation of the federal district. Numerous proposals have been introduced to change this situation including legislation and constitutional amendments to grant D.C. residents voting representation, returning the District to the state of Maryland and making the District of Columbia into a new state. All proposals have been met with political or constitutional challenges; therefore, there has been no change in the District's representation in the Congress. The debate below features arguments for and against Washington, DC voting rights.
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General Statements

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Yes

  • Congress has power from the commerce clause to decide how to best govern DC. Congress regulates the flow of commerce between the District and the states, and that power is also expressly reserved in the Constitution for Congress to act on commerce 'among the several states.' This means Congress can decide that the best way to govern the District is for Washingtonians to have the same voting rights as other taxpaying Americans.[1]
  • State citizens living abroad can vote by absentee ballot at home. Dinh. - "The overseas voter need not be a citizen of the state where voting occurs. Indeed, the voter need not have an abode in that state, pay taxes in that state, or even intend to return to that state. If there is no constitutional bar prohibiting Congress from permitting overseas voters who are not citizens of a state to vote in federal elections, there is no constitutional bar to similar legislation extending the federal franchise to District residents."[2]




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No

  • DC representation could only be achieved if D.C. was ceded back to Maryland. There is a precedent for this with Arlington and Alexandria were ceded back to Virginia in the 19th century.


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Constitution

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Yes

  • The Constitution grants Congress the authority to pass laws offering DC voting rights. The Constitution expressly says "the Congress shall have power ... to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever".
  • The Constitution reserves the right of representation to "states" only, and DC is not a state. "Article I Section 2. The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states, and the electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.No person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty five years, and been seven years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of that state in which he shall be chosen."
  • Kenneth Star. "A republican, that is representative, form of government, is a foundational cornerstone in the Constitution's structure; the denial of representation was one of the provocations that generated the Declaration of Independence and the War that implemented it. Article I creates the republican form of the national government, and Article IV guarantees that form to its people, regardless of whether they reside in a District or a State." [3]
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No

  • DC voting rights would require that the Constitution be reformed.
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Representation

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Pro

  • Lars Hydle: "Washington D.C. is under the control of the Congress, yet has no representation in the Congress."
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Con

  • DC already has more representation than other states because Congress is charged with legislating on DC matters. The District is represented by all 100 Senators and 435 Representatives in Congress.
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Equality

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Pro

  • DC Residents deserve the same rights their fellow Americans have.
  • "DC residents pay federal income taxes, serve on juries and die in wars to defend American democracy, but they do not have voting representation in the Congress."
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Con

  • If DC gets full representation, so should a lot of other cities that are bigger than DC. In the 2000 census, DC ranked 21st in the size of its population. It was behind, for example, Memphis, Jacksonville, and San Diego. If DC should get voting representation in Congress with only 572,000 residents, why shouldn't New York City with its 8 million residents?
  • Geographically speaking, residents of the District have far more access than other Americans. After all, members of Congress live and work in the National Capital Area. Whereas a resident of California would have to travel to the District to speak in person to his or her representative, residents of the District commingle with Senators and Representatives regularly.
  • The District is a relatively small city with a relatively narrow political affiliation; if it gets voting representation, the votes of residents of large states such as New York or California would mean less. This is not fair.
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Domestic Law

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Pro

  • Article 20 of the American Declaration states that "Every person having legal capacity is entitled to participate in the government of his country, directly or through his representatives, and to take part in popular elections, which shall be by secret ballot, and shall be honest, periodic and free."
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Con

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International Law

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Pro

  • Article 25 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that "Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, 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."


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Con

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Economics

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Pro

  • Without any voting representation in Congress and without true local autonomy, the business community of the District of Columbia is powerless to affect the laws and policies that affect business and economic growth.
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Con

  • DC is fiscally irresponsible and cannot effectively manage its money, even with the oversight of the entire Congress; how does it think it would manage better left to its own devices?
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Taxes

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Pro

  • In the financial year 2007, D.C. residents and businesses paid $20.4 billion in federal taxes; more than the taxes collected from 19 states and the highest federal taxes per capita.
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Con

  • D.C. would be the second smallest state (and it is shrinking) and likely lacks the tax base to operate independently.
  • Despite paying taxes, DC already receives federal grants to offset the city's costs.
  • In 2007, the federal government provided about 33% of the District's general revenue. On average, federal funds formed about 30% the states' general revenues that year.
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Statehood

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Pro

  • DC is treated like a state in federal law and practice, so why not in regard to voting rights.
  • "While the language of the Constitution literally requires that House members be elected "by the People of the Several states," Congress has not always applied this language so literally. For example, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act allows U.S. citizens living abroad to vote in congressional elections in their last state of residence – even if they are no longer citizens there, pay any taxes there, or have any intent to return."
  • "The Constitution allows Congress to regulate commerce "among the several states," which, literally, would exclude DC. But Congress' authority to treat DC as a "state" for Commerce Clause purposes was upheld in Stoughtenburg v. Hennick (1889)."
  • "Congress has authority under the District Clause power to confer on the District certain rights and responsibilities of states; that Congress has often done so in the past; that such exercises of Congress’s power have been repeatedly upheld by the courts; and that Congress can use that power now to confer on District residents the most precious right already enjoyed by citizens of the States – the right to vote." [4]
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Con

  • DC voting rights would require that D.C. be admitted as a state.
  • "This bill cannot escape the simple language of Article 1, Section 2: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States.” Only the people of the states may choose members of Congress, and the District of Columbia is not a state." [5]
  • "Defenders of the plan have employed a constitutional sophistry to argue that by legislation Congress can bestow upon the District attributes of statehood. They have, for instance, cited the fact that Congress regulates interstate commerce crossing the District’s lines. But all this proves is that Congress has the power to govern the District’s affairs, not that it can give congressional representation to non-states." [6]
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Morality

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Pro

  • Taxation without representation!
  • "Consider the irony of a country of former colonies that felt the injustice of “taxation without representation” now inflicting such a condition on the residents of its own capital. The license plate has it right." [7]
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Con

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Precedent

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Pro

  • The 23rd amendment to the United States Constitution permits citizens in the District of Columbia to vote for Electors for President and Vice President.
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Con

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Democracy

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Pro

  • DC residents are being denied American democracy. "Wesberry v. Sanders". Justice Hugo Black. February 1964. "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."
  • "570,000 residents of the District of Columbia lack a fundamental right common to citizens of every other democracy throughout the world where power is shared between national and state governments -- the right to full and equal voting representation in their national legislatures. In fact,over 180 nations provide equal representation to residents of their capital cities, including every Latin America country, where early on, federal government structures were inspired by the United States." [8]
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Con

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Partisanship

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Pro

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Con

  • The balance of power in Congress should not be upset by giving voting representation to a city full of Democrats.
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Expert Opinion

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Yes

  • President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported DC voting rights.[9]
  • Kenneth Starr, the former Clinton impeachment case special prosecutor.
  • Viet Dinh, the Georgetown law professor and former Justice Department official.
  • Judges Kenneth Starr and Patricia Wald, Professors Viet Dinh and Charles Ogletree, DC lawyers Walter Smith of DC Appleseed and Rick Bress of Latham & Watkins are among legal experts who agree that Congress has the authority to pass simple legislation giving District residents voting representation in Congress. All have written legal analyses confirming that authority, and all the analyses make the same key points.


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No

Click on the pencil icon and research and write arguments here

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Public Opinion

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Pro

  • A poll of 1,007 U.S. adults found that 82 percent of Americans believe citizens of Washington, DC, should have equal congressional voting rights in both the Senate and the House.
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Con

See also

External links and resources

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