For the citizens of Washington, every April 16 brings a bittersweet, ironic commemoration. Emancipation Day celebrates the date President Lincoln abolished slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862. Certainly the transformation of America's capital from bond to free deserves a nod, but the date nags at another historical injustice that persists today. District citizens are still deprived of the essential right of representation in Congress. So this year, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty has dedicated Emancipation Day to fighting for D.C. voting rights, underscoring a growing grass-roots movement around the issue.
The Constitution states that Congress shall "exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever" over the district. Yet its citizens aren't allowed a representative or senator to participate in the lawmaking process. That's 580,000 US citizens who are taxed without representation, taken to war without representation, and subject to laws they have no say in devising. Even the city's budget is subject to congressional approval, leaving local officials at the mercy of a body they don't elect.
This curious form of American peasantry began in 1801, when Congress first swept into town and stripped capital residents of their ability to vote in Maryland or Virginia. The idea of an unrepresented district citizenry was certainly anathema to the Founding Fathers, who fought a bloody revolution over the very issue, and their intentions to rectify the matter are well documented. But despite two centuries of good intentions, this tabled issue has grown from a legislative "to-do" into a civil rights crisis that challenges the legitimacy of American democracy.
Consider that the Bush administration has spent close to $1 trillion trying to spread democracy in the Middle East. Yet senior White House advisers said they will urge the president to veto a bipartisan bill that would give one voting seat to the largely Democratic district in exchange for an additional seat for Republican Utah. The bill is currently fighting its way through the House, but presidential advisers say that the legislation is unconstitutional. The Constitution says members of Congress are elected by the people of each state. And the district, they say, is not a state. House Republicans have fought the bill on the same grounds. Incidentally, neither the legislative nor executive branches are ordained to decide matters of constitutionality.
If spreading democracy is the imperative of the last remaining superpower, then the mandate for the US is to honor D.C. voting rights. To tolerate the status quo smacks of hypocrisy to foreign governments. As a senior Hong Kong official told Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia in 2005, "Give your nation's capital the right to vote and then come talk to us about democracy in Hong Kong."
Sadly, partisan maneuvering belies the political nature of the D.C. voting rights issue. Yeas and nays fall along party lines due to the district's Democratic majority, and opponents see the enfranchisement of 580,000 US citizens as a "power grab" for the Democrats. The issue, however, is emphatically nonpartisan. Voting rights are rooted in the Constitution, not the partisan makeup of a region.
This month, supporters in Seattle will stage a mock tea party, and others will hold talks in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Hawaii. On April 14, a group of D.C. bands completed the first leg of the "DC Voting Rights Tour 2007," an indie-rock tour that's mobilizing youth support behind the cause. And on April 16, D.C. suffrage activists are marching on the Capitol. The march boasts the sponsorship of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, People for the American Way, and more than 30 other groups.
Why the sudden revival in support for D.C. suffrage? At this moment in history, America seems to be longing for any cause that offers hope of tangible achievement. And unlike most rancorous political scuffles, there is a simple resolution to this issue. The bill now moving through Congress gives the federal government an opportunity to put politics aside and advance the nation in a meaningful way. As a district citizen, I'm looking forward to someday celebrating "Emancipation Day" without a hint of irony.
• Rob Getzschman is a small business owner, musician, and president and cofounder of Indie Roots D.C..