Earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden made headlines for stating his belief that “there should be two Senators from the State of D.C.” As an American Citizen who recently lost her right to taxation without representation when I registered as a voter in the District of Columbia, I want to thank him for sticking up for people like me.
The United States is the only democracy in the world where residents of the Capitol do not have full voting rights. While Congress treats D.C. as a state for the purposes of over 500 laws and DC residents pay approximately 1.6 billion in federal taxes annually, D.C. is legally not a state, and does not enjoy budget autonomy from Congress. I have lived in DC since 2008, and finally became a permanent D.C. resident two weeks ago. When I registered to vote in D.C., I gave up my right as an American Citizen to any representation in the U.S. Senate, and to a Representative who can vote on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Later that week, I went to sign an action alert for an organization I’ve been active with for years. Instead of a normal thank you reply email, I got an email saying I was ineligible to take action. My voice in the U.S. Senate had been erased by registering as a D.C. voter. I cast my first vote as a D.C. resident in support of Councilwoman Anita Bonds, a strong advocate for D.C. voting rights, and for Referendum 8, which passed, approving a charter amendment that will allow D.C. to spend its local tax dollars without Congressional approval. Currently, D.C. residents do not have local budget freedom and are taxed without representation, which means we lack two of the most fundamental rights that our founding fathers fought for.
Some argue that D.C. is too small to be a state, but there are over 600,00 D.C. residents, making D.C. larger than Wyoming, and a similarly sized to Vermont. There are eight states that have populations of less than a million, and all of their residents enjoy equal voting rights. Additionally, D.C. has a larger economy than fourteen states. Residents of the District of Columbia pay more per resident in Federal taxes than any other state. It’s also worth noting that twenty states have lost fewer residents in our nation’s wars than the District of Columbia’s families have. Those families deserve a voting member of Congress. Without one, D.C.’s military families, those with the most to lose, have no Congressional say in whether or not our country goes to war, and their families are faced with the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice
Beyond the size argument, many argue that residents of the District of Columbia already have an outsized amount of influence on American government, meaning that they don’t need a voting Representative or a Senator. I could easily be seen as an archetype of D.C. residents that leads to apathy about DC voting rights. I live in a beautiful apartment on Capitol Hill and am a reasonably successful college graduate. I am not a person of color, I have a financial safety net, and I am not low income by any standard. This pretty picture, of residents who are privileged, white and living a good quality of life despite being disenfranchised from full voting rights, belies the dirty truth anyone who ventures off of K St is well aware of.
The bottom 20% of D.C. earns less than $9,500 annually, putting them well below the poverty line. The top 5% of D.C. earns over $500,000 annually, putting us at an income inequality ratio of 54 to 1. The income inequality in D.C. is wider than any state and is only wider in two major cities. In the city’s poorest section, Ward 8, over one third of the adults and over half the children live below the poverty line. The glamorous image many Americans have of White D.C. residents piled in pearls and whisked off in limos to Galas with the President is not inaccurate, but only represents a fraction of D.C. Residents. The notion that all residents of D.C. have access to wealth and the upper echelons of American political power based solely on their area code is wildly inaccurate, and is used to oppress Americans for political gain.
Beyond the glaring income inequality in D.C., another important thing to note in discussions of DC residents and privilege is race. People often picture D.C. Residents as not only affluent, powerful and educated, but as white. In fact D.C. has had a large African American population since 1800.
For over a hundred years African Americans have been a driving force in D.C. culture and development, from Langston Hughes to Duke Ellington. D.C.’s past seven mayors have been African American. Over 50% of D.C. residents are African American, which is actually a historic low, from a high of 70% in 1975. As Democrats have railed (rightly) against attempts to disenfranchise voters of color in politically important states like Florida and Ohio, they have overwhelmingly turned a blind eye to the lack of voting rights for African American voters in their own backyard. The fact that one of America’s most African American cities lacks full voting rights for its residents is an affront to American Democracy.
The residents of D.C., whether they be white or black, rich or poor, have one thing in common, a dearth of nationally prominent champions fighting for them to have full representation. The Republican party, those champions of small government and local control, have had no hesitation about interfering with local D.C. policies on gun control or abortion in order to score cheap political points with constituents (you know, those other Americans who get to vote for Senators and Members of Congress who can vote on the floor.) The Republican party is also officially is against D.C. statehood in its 2012 platform. Perhaps its because of D.C.’s strong history of voting for Democrats, and the likelihood of two new Democratic Senate seats. The Democratic Party on the other hand, simply hasn’t made it a major priority, and has been criticized by D.C. leadership for not pushing for voting rights or statehood(which are not necessarily one and the same) during the brief time they had a filibuster proof super majority.
It’s important to recognize those few politicians outside of D.C. who stand with the people of D.C. Thank you Vice President Biden, for making more Americans aware of the gross inequality we are facing in D.C., and for voicing your support for voting rights for every American.