The House of Representatives made history on June 26, when it voted 232-180 to approve the Washington, D.C. Admission Act. This, noted the congressional delegate who advocates for the 705,000 Americans who live in the nation’s capital, was “[the] first time since the creation of the District of Columbia 219 years ago that either chamber of Congress has passed a bill to grant statehood to D.C. residents and, with it, equal citizenship.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the civil rights movement veteran who for decades has championed D.C. statehood, framed last week’s debate as an argument over the promise of democracy. “Congress has two choices,” explained the delegate, who has a seat but no vote in the House. “It can continue to exercise undemocratic, autocratic authority over the 705,000 American citizens who reside in our nation’s capital, treating them, in the words of Frederick Douglass, as ‘aliens, not citizens, but subjects.’ Or Congress can live up to this nation’s promise and ideals and pass H.R. 51.”
What was at stake in the vote on the D.C. Admission Act, explained Representative Jamie Raskin, was the question of whether members of the people’s house were prepared to “give democratic self-government and equal representation to 700,000 American citizens.”
Of the 233 Democrats who voted, 232 supported the statehood legislation. Only one House Democrat, Minnesota’s Colin Peterson, failed to recognize Norton’s argument that the United States is “the only democratic country that denies both voting rights in the national legislature and local autonomy to the residents of the nation’s capital.”
Every Republican voted to continue the disenfranchisement of a city where the majority of residents are people of color.
The members of the Grand Old Party did not merely shame themselves with their votes. They shamed themselves with their defenses of those votes. “Does anyone believe giving Washington more power in Washington will ever help hardworking taxpayers across America? Of course not,” snarled Representative Kevin Brady. Norton had the answer for that one: “D.C. pays more federal taxes per capita than any state and pays more federal taxes than 22 states.”
In fact, Norton, whose record of voting rights advocacy can be traced to her days as an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, has an answer for every Republican attempt to justify the unjustifiable. “D.C.’s population of 705,000 is larger than those of Wyoming and Vermont, and the new state would be one of seven states with a population under 1 million,” she explained. “D.C.’s $15.5 billion budget is larger than those of 12 states, and D.C.’s triple-A bond rating is higher than those of 35 states. D.C. has a higher per capita personal income and gross domestic product than any state. Eighty-six percent of D.C. residents voted for statehood in 2016. In fact, D.C. residents have been fighting for voting rights in Congress and local autonomy for 219 years.”
What united Republicans in their opposition to D.C. statehood was not a credible argument. It was a cynical determination to suppress the votes of people who might, for reasons of history and current circumstance, be inclined to back Democrats—especially progressive Democrats. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell claims the statehood push is “full-bore socialism on the march in the House” and asserts that “as long as I’m the majority leader of the Senate, none of that stuff is going anywhere.”
President Trump is just as blunt. “DC will never be a state,” he grumbled in May. “You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic—Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No thank you. That’ll never happen.”
Trump and McConnell are wrong. D.C. will be a state, and the other commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States will have representation that respects their racial, ethnic, and political diversity. Because there is growing recognition that the suppression of voting rights and representation is a supreme injustice.
“More than 160 years ago, Washingtonian Frederick Douglass told us: Power concedes nothing without a demand. As Washingtonians and as taxpaying American citizens, we are demanding what is owed to us—the rights guaranteed to us by the U.S. Constitution,” argues D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
It is past time to fix this injustice. It is true that DC is more brown and more liberal than many other states. But the issue of taxation without representation was settled more than 200 years ago through the Declaration of Independence, and disenfranchising more than 700,000 taxpaying Americans is wrong no matter our politics or demographics. Who we elect is our business, and denying us statehood based on who we might send to Congress is both undemocratic and un-American.
The mayor, whose profile has risen in recent weeks as she has stood up to Trump’s crude authoritarianism and defended the right of Washingtonians to protest police violence and racism, has amplified the statehood argument at a moment when Americans are waking up to the need to address historic injustices. “I was born without representation,” she says, “but I swear—I will not die without representation. Together, we will achieve DC statehood, and when we do, we will look back on this day and remember all who stood with us on the right side of history.”
Republicans recognize what’s happening, and they’re doing everything in their power to thwart it.
Trump and his amen corner in the Senate oppose statehood for the same reason they have pursued an aggressive voter-suppression agenda that is as blatant as it is immoral: They know they cannot win safe and fair elections. So they throw barriers in the way of increased voter turnout with their support of restrictive photo ID laws and their fierce opposition to voting by mail. It’s the same reason they throw barriers in the way of representative democracy with their resistance to D.C. statehood.
The Republicans, once the party of abolitionists, now stand in stark opposition to the expansion of democracy that was once understood as vital to the party’s mission. They reject the legacy of Frederick Douglass, the “firm and inflexible Republican” of the post–Civil War years, for whom the 51st state will be named. Douglass aligned with the Republican Party in the era when segregationists called the tune on the Democratic side. In that period, he promoted D.C. voting rights, asking, “What have the people of the District done that they should be excluded from the privileges of the ballot box? Where, when and how did they incur the penalty of taxation without representation?”
The Republican Party was never as good as it claimed to be. But at one time it did recognize—or at least claimed to recognize—the difference between right and wrong.
The party’s 1972 platform promised, “We remain committed to a comprehensive program of human rights, social betterment and political participation for the people of the District of Columbia,” and declared, “We support voting representation for the District of Columbia in the United States Congress.”
That same platform heralded the support of a Republican president, Richard Nixon, for “strong new amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” and pledged “continued vigilance to ensure that the rights affirmed by this act are upheld.”
Less than 50 years later, the party no longer even tries to get it right. The GOP has placed itself, squarely and unequivocally, on the wrong side of the voting rights debate—and the wrong side of history.