This op-ed argues that D.C. statehood is a key question of civil and voting rights.
BY JACK MILLER
“No taxation without representation.”
You might remember that slogan from history class. Residents of the 13 colonies had no voice in British parliament and believed they were being unfairly taxed. So, in 1776, they declared independence, and ended up fighting an eight-year war.
Following the Revolutionary War, America expanded westward, taking over Native land with brutal force, adding 37 more states. The last two states to join were Alaska and Hawaii, in 1959.
Unfortunately, places like Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. are still left out of that 50-state union. Their omission has serious consequences for the more than 689,000 Americans living in D.C. and 3.3 million Americans living in Puerto Rico. Both of these jurisdictions are without voting representation in Congress. In D.C., “taxation without representation” is even printed on every license plate.
Puerto Rico has not yet decided whether it prefers statehood, independence, or an alternative to the current territorial arrangement, but the people of Washington, D.C. have made it explicitly clear: We want statehood. In 2016, the District voted by more than 85% to become a state.
D.C. statehood is no longer a fringe issue in American politics, it’s a key question of civil rights and voting rights.
Here are five reasons why D.C. should become the 51st state.
1) We have the numbers
Land does not vote, people do. By that measure, the District is larger than two existing states, Vermont and Wyoming. According to the latest census numbers, D.C. has 689,545 residents; neither Vermont nor Wyoming has more than 645,000.
Residents of the District also pay the highest federal taxes per capita in the country. Yes, you read that correctly: Despite having no voting representation in the House or Senate, District residents pay more in taxes per person than in any other state. On top of that, the District pays more total taxes to the federal government than 23 current states.
No matter how you measure it, this is not a fair system.
2) To expand voting rights and equality
In our democracy, everyone should have a voice and a vote. Despite paying all those taxes, D.C. has no vote in Congress. The District does have a congressional delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, but Norton cannot vote on final passage of bills. Worse, D.C. has no representation whatsoever in the Senate. (Full disclosure: I’m a former communications director for Congresswoman Norton.)
For example, the last Congress considered the impeachment of President Trump and possible military action against Iran. The impeachment of a president and the use of military force are the most serious issues Congress will ever consider. Yet in both cases, D.C. residents did not have a representative in Congress who could vote on their behalf.
This lack of voting rights is particularly damning when you consider the voice of D.C. veterans, who have fought to defend our nation, only to return home as unequal citizens.
“D.C. statehood shouldn’t be partisan. It’s an issue of fairness, and we’re simply asking for the same rights that are already granted to other Americans in all 50 states,” says Jamal Holtz, an organizer with the advocacy group 51 for 51. Holtz and 51 for 51 argue that the Senate should approve D.C. statehood with a simple 51-vote majority, bypassing the 60-vote filibuster rule.
As Holtz points out, “The mostly Black and brown residents of D.C. are denied some of our most basic civil rights, a fact that anyone who supports a fair and just nation for all should care about.”
3) D.C. needs true local government
District residents are also deprived of true local governance. In every state, we elect local and state representatives and hold them accountable. But in the District, Congress can overrule any local law it disagrees with.
In practice, this means Congress can block D.C. from legalizing marijuana (which D.C. wishes to tax and spend on schools) and local funds from assisting low-income people with abortions. Fortunately, Congress recently lifted the ban on abortion assistance, but the block on full marijuana legalization remains in place.
Imagine if a congressman from Arkansas or Kentucky could write the local laws in California or Georgia. It’s an absurd system.
“It’s outrageous that members of Congress without accountability to D.C. residents can meddle in local D.C. affairs,” says Congresswoman Norton. Norton has been fighting for decades for statehood and full local autonomy. Each Congress, Norton introduces dozens of bills for her “Free and Equal D.C,” series, which would give the District more local control and autonomy.
“Ultimately, the solution is statehood for the District,” Norton says, “which has passed in the House twice, and would ensure D.C. has equality with the states without fear of outside interference.”
4) Statehood would boost Black representation in Congress
One of the strongest arguments for D.C. statehood is racial justice and Black representation. D.C. has a majority-minority population, with Black Americans accounting for nearly 46% of residents. The District’s two highest-elected officials, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congresswoman Norton, are both Black women. If admitted as a state, D.C. would almost certainly send more Black representatives and senators to Congress.
“Just as Black women have been sidelined throughout history, our voices are minimized at the federal level,” says Demi Stratmon, another organizer with 51 for 51. “If D.C. was granted statehood, that would all change, and we would be able to champion issues that impact Black and brown communities in the halls of the Senate.”
5) Show me the money!
Far from being a drag on the U.S. government, the District can fully sustain itself financially. Despite the pandemic, D.C. finished 2020 with a budget surplus of $526 million.
“The District ended Fiscal Year 2020 with a general fund balance exceeding $3.2 billion and maintained its triple-A credit rating,” says Fitzroy Lee, the District’s independent chief financial officer. Lee also noted that D.C.’s triple-A credit rating is higher than that of 32 current states. “The District of Columbia’s fiscal foundation is extremely strong and it is more than capable of transitioning to statehood.”
6) The real list is 689,545 entries long
I know I said five reasons, but a true list would include more than 689,545 entries, because every single American living in Washington, D.C. deserves representation, equality, and voting rights.
In its 245-year history, America has constantly changed to become a more representative and more just country. We added 37 states, gave women the right to vote, and expanded voting rights for Black Americans.
Statehood for Washington, D.C. is one of the defining civil rights and voting issues of our time. It’s a question of basic fairness and equality. District residents aren’t demanding special treatment, we’re just demanding the same rights as everyone else.