D.C. Voting Rights — The Bipartisan, Constitutional Way
Those who live in the Washington, D.C., area know better than anyone else that District of Columbia residents have been deprived of Congressional voting rights for most of our nation’s history. Many also know something about the continual protests and campaigns that attempt to remedy this situation.
The usual assumption by both the proponents and opponents in these campaigns is that the choice is between creating two Senators and one Representative for one city (with fewer people than all but the smallest Congressional districts), or keeping the status quo of no voting Congressional representation for the half-million-plus residents of the nation’s capital. Thanks to the efforts of the Committee for the Capital City and the goodwill and courage of Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the realization is spreading that there is a way to provide full and fair federal representation for D.C. residents — without statehood, a constitutional amendment or adding two new Senators.
The CCC first presented its proposal in an hour-long meeting with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), followed by a presentation to Government Reform Chairman Davis’ office. The first portion of the CCC proposal would temporarily expand the size of the House of Representatives by one to accommodate a ninth Member from Maryland, who would represent D.C. This seat would be expanded at the next redistricting to allow for Maryland districts of equal population, while keeping D.C. intact within one district. Up to this point, the CCC proposal corresponds with what later became known as the “Davis approach” (with the possible additional twist of expanding the House by one more seat to also accommodate an additional representative from Utah). [See story, p. 3.]
The CCC proposal doesn’t stop there, however. It also provides for D.C. residents to vote for Maryland’s Senators and presidential electors. (To avoid overrepresentation in the Electoral College, the proposal would have Congress exercise its power under the 23rd Amendment to provide that the separate D.C. electoral votes not be cast.)
The Constitution could hardly be any clearer in its mandate that Senators and Representatives come from states. That’s why the proposal offered by Norton and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) to create by statute two Senators from D.C. as a non-state entity is entirely unconstitutional. The CCC proposal, on the other hand, by restoring the federal representation through Maryland which D.C. residents once enjoyed, stays within the constitutional framework and could be enacted without the need for a constitutional amendment.
Allowing U.S. citizens to vote in an election only for a state’s federal offices is not unprecedented. That’s the method Congress chose to enfranchise the more than 4 million U.S. citizens who live abroad. Under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, U.S. citizens living in other countries are permitted to register and vote for federal offices in the last state they had a connection with, even if they don’t pay taxes to that state and don’t have the intention of returning to that state. This law applies even to U.S. citizens who have never lived in the United States, who can qualify based on the last U.S. address of their U.S. citizen parents.
It should also be noted that the fact that Maryland ceded the District of Columbia to the federal government in 1788 does not mean Congress is forever precluded from restoring any of the state citizenship rights to D.C. residents that it took away in 1800. Maryland, just like every other state, has ceded many areas to the federal government over the years. In Maryland’s case, the largest such “districts” include the National Institutes of Health campus, Fort Meade, the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Aberdeen Proving Grounds and the Assateague Island National Seashore. Combined, these federal enclaves are much larger in area than the 68 square miles that make up the District of Columbia.
Yet, although Congress has the power of “exclusive legislation” over all of these enclaves, in every other case it has allowed residents to retain their state citizenship rights, including voting. So there’s no reason why Congress couldn’t make a similar decision to restore some voting rights for residents of the District of Columbia. What Congress takes away by statute can be restored by statute.
There is a reasonable and constitutional solution to this 200-year-old deprivation of voting rights that Members of Congress and D.C. residents, Republicans and Democrats, can get behind. Tom Davis is opening the door — let’s not let this opportunity slip away.
Richard T. Dykema, chief of staff and legislative director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), was a minority professional staff member for the District of Columbia Committee from 1989 to 1995, and is a member of the Committee for the Capital City.