Washington D.C.’s Eternal Fight for Statehood
In 2000, Washington D.C. started printing “Taxation Without Representation” on all its standard license plates. Sixteen years later, it was updated to “End Taxation Without Representation.”
The plates reference one of the colonists’ main complaints against the British Empire during the American Revolution; the fact that it imposed a tax without fulfilling the colonists’ right to effective representation. Ever since the early days of the Republic, Washington D.C. has adopted it as its unofficial motto.
These license plates are also part of a long history of the capital’s fight for the same voting rights and self-governance as the other states. In fact, D.C. (the District of Columbia) residents pay taxes without having any voting representatives in the U.S. Congress.
Congress v. Washington D.C.
Washington was initially the ancestral home of the Nacotchtank people. After the British drove them out from their land, it was given to both Maryland and Virginia. In 1790, both these states ceded some of their territories to make room for the District of Columbia, the U.S.A.’s capital.
During the Reconstruction Era, Washington D.C.’s black population skyrocketed, making about a third of the overall inhabitants of the district. In 1867, black men won the right to vote in local D.C. elections and started establishing themselves in D.C.’s government.
In the first half of the 1870s, Congress passed two laws with the sole purpose of dismantling black voting power, giving the President — whom people in Washington couldn’t vote for — the right to appoint a local government for the capital.
The President could still consult with Congress regarding the appointments, but because D.C. didn’t have any voting members in Congress it could not influence the decisions.
Meanwhile, the President, congressmen, and federal staff members could still enjoy their full voting rights in their home states. The restrictions only applied to full-time residents, and, in a way, resemble a lot of the racist voting restrictions that southern states used to suppress black votes.
The Civil Rights Movement is a breath of fresh air
For nearly a century, the restrictive system that denied D.C. residents the right to vote remained in place. Yet, Washington’s population grew exponentially in that time. In 1957, it became the first predominantly-black city in the country, and, in 1970, the city’s black population soared over 70%.
The Civil Rights Movement reignited the fight for change in D.C. and won some key victories for the cause. Through the 23rd amendment, ratified in 1961, the city’s residents could now vote for the president and vice president.
But, even though D.C.’s population is over 760,000 people according to the most recent census (more populous than eleven states), it could not receive more electors than the lowest-populated state (Alaska with 226,000 people). Thus, since 1964, D.C. has always had three electors for the presidency vote regardless of its population size.
In 1971, Washington D.C. could finally have a member in the U.S. House of Representatives, although this was a non-voting member. The delegate from Washington can serve on committees and speak on the floor but can never vote.
In 1973, and despite much resistance, D.C. won the right to elect its own mayor and city council through the Home Rule Act. There existed many limitations on what a home-rule government could do, and Congress held the power to block any laws from the mayor and city council, which it had done continuously.
D.C.’s fight for fair representation can be connected to similar causes in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. People living in these territories pay federal taxes but have no representatives in Congress and can’t vote for the president.
Many advocates for D.C. statehood have stated that there is no constitutional basis according to which Washington can’t become a state. Multiple bills have been introduced to make it the 51st state, and none of them have been voted in both houses.