A digital display that updates every minute to show the amount of tax paid by Washington D.C citizens this year, is installed outside the John A. Wilson District Building, Washington D.C’s municipal offices. Today it is around $2,600,000,000.
“No taxation without representation” say the car number-plates on cars and vans driving around Washington DC.
It is all due to a strange anomaly, that citizens in the capital of the United States pay their taxes and serve on juries but do not have representatives who can vote on their behalf in Congress.
The reasons for this strange state of affairs go back to 1790 and the founding of Washington D.C. as the capital of the United States, after a compromise was agreed between Thomas Jefferson and the southern states and Alexander Hamilton and the northern states. They wanted the capital to be an independent city without local state representatives, who might exert undue influence over the workings of future governments. Therefore, they specified in the Constitution that the capital was neither to be a state nor to be within a state. In the 1790s, their decision disenfranchised around 10,000 people.
However, the population of Washington D.C. is now nearly 700,000 – greater than the U.S. states of Vermont and Wyoming, and larger than that of some EU countries, including Malta and Luxembourg. Yet D.C. residents still do not have voting representation in Congress, and the federal government maintains jurisdiction over the District’s finances and local laws.
It seems unlikely that the Founding Fathers intended this disenfranchisement to get so out of hand. Campaigners for D.C. statehood certainly don’t believe so.
Statehood campaigners are keen to point out that this is not an arcane point of history but a real problem today. The situation leads to decisions taken locally being obstructed such as the blocking of public funding for family planning for those in financial need.
Today’s campaigners are part of a long history. Inside the John A. Wilson District Building, hanging on the walls are paintings and photos of 200 years of struggle. One is a black-and-white photograph of a beaming 97-year-old man casting the first vote of his life, in the 1964 presidential election.
It was not until 1961, that the 23rd amendment gave D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections for the first time.
This victory is an important one for today’s campaigners. In their work to achieve their goal of Washington D.C. becoming the United States’ 51st state, they point to the fact that the Constitution is not an infallible document; it has been amended numerous times before, including to give their citizens additional rights.
Secondly, it came at a time of political and social upheaval, with the struggle for the right to vote being linked to the wider Civil Rights movement.
Thirdly, there was international pressure and an ‘embarrassment’ factor as at the height of the Cold War, the USSR sought to highlight the situation, leading Senator Jennings Randolph to declare, ‘It is ironical that the people of this city, the capital of the United States, have less voice in their government than the people of Moscow.’
It is this international pressure that today’s campaigners hope to recreate. In 1995, they took their case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and in 2015 the District of Columbia was admitted to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Now, Senator Paul Strauss – one of D.C.’s two elected Shadow Senators, who have no voting rights in the Senate – is hoping to bring further international attention to this issue.
I have met the Senator in both Brussels and in D.C. and am keen to assist him in his mission to make the ‘51st State’ campaign go global. Consequently, we shall be launching the International Friends of D.C. Statehood in the European Parliament later this week.
Some argue that British politicians should not concern ourselves with the internal politics of another nation, but since the European Parliament and the British Parliament call out human rights violations across the world, I see no reason not to do so in this case too.
The citizens of D.C. are denied the basic rights that others living in liberal democracies take for granted. Meanwhile, Washington D.C.’s population continues to grow: its rate of increase is one of the fastest in the U.S. as young people flock to the vibrant job market, good universities, and dynamic regenerated neighbourhoods.
Fortunately, suitable legislation is already on the table, and in 2016 an overwhelming 86% of D.C. voted to petition Congress to admit the District as the 51st State and to approve a constitution and boundaries for the new state.
For me, of course, this campaign is bittersweet. Whilst D.C. seeks to become a full member of a wider grouping, my nation plunges headlong out of another union.
Can the campaign succeed? Certainly it is heartening to see that the key conditions for campaign success from the 1960s seem present again. The US is currently experiencing an unprecedented and unpredictable political landscape. Meanwhile social movements such as March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo are thriving. Add to that some serious international pressure and could a 200-year campaign for D.C. statehood get some real traction? Now is definitely the time to try.