Columnist John Sheirer: The state of Fairness

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, accompanied by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., left, speaks at a news conference on District of Columbia statehood on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Washington. AP

Published: 4/12/2021 10:06:06 AM

Imagine waking on a crisp, autumn morning. You slept soundly because you’re a citizen of the greatest democracy ever, the United States. You join your neighbors at the local polling place and step into the voting booth and check off your choices for important local and state offices. You inhale a deep breath of freedom because you’re part of “we the people,” fully invested in your nation’s government.

But wait. There’s something wrong with your ballot. The most consequential choices are missing. You stagger toward an election worker. “Where are the lines for Congress?” you ask, your voice cracking. “American citizens have the right to vote for members of Congress!”

The election worker, a kindly, retired middle school social studies teacher, hits you with a knowledge punch to the gut. “Oh, sweetie,” she says. “Don’t you know? We don’t get to vote for Congress.”

Welcome to the District of Columbia.

Imagine if this happened in Wyoming. Would the rugged individuals from that state say, “No problem. I don’t really want representation in Congress anyway.” Of course not.

So why do we expect DC citizens to settle for a nonvoting delegate in the House and zero representation in the Senate? Are DC citizens somehow worth less than Wyoming citizens? How about Vermont? Why do our northern neighbors get congressional representation but our fellow citizens in DC don’t?

The most common argument against representation for DC is population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, DC has about 700,000 residents. Yes, that’s low, but Wyoming has only 580,000, Vermont just 624,000. And four other states have fewer than one million: Alaska, North and South Dakota, and Delaware. No one is clambering to revoke their congressional representation.

There’s also the claim that DC is too small to be a state. True, DC would be the smallest state, but we don’t base voting rights on square miles. Citizens vote. Dirt doesn’t.

Some folks who should know better have floated nonsensical arguments against DC statehood. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton recently claimed that DC shouldn’t be a state because Wyoming has a greater percentage of people working in logging, mining and industry than DC does. Cotton has forgotten that the U.S. no longer determines voters based on occupational criteria, such as being white, male landowners.

Georgia Rep. Jody Hice argued against DC statehood because DC has no car dealership, which is both irrelevant and incorrect. Zack Smith of the Heritage Foundation claimed that DC residents already influence government because they put up yard signs visible to members of Congress. This Mr. Smith went to Washington and confused signage with actual representation.

Of course, Republicans mainly oppose DC statehood because they claim it’s a plot to get more Democrats in Congress, especially the Senate. I’m confused by the assumption that Republicans couldn’t get elected in DC. Why would Republicans admit that their party is repulsive to voters in a specific area? If they’re so unappealing, maybe they should improve candidates and policies instead of oppressing voters.

Remember Scott Brown? He didn’t say, “A Republican has no Senatorial chance in the People’s Republic of Liberalchusetts.” Instead, to his credit, he ran and won (well, temporarily). Republicans regularly win national office in blue states, just as Democrats do in red states. Look at Georgia, where two blue senators and a president just won.

Even if Democrats picked up two DC Senate seats, that wouldn’t radically change Senate representation. Vox journalist Ian Millhiser recently pointed out that the 50 Republicans in the Senate represent about 143 million Americans while the 50 Democrats represent 185 million. That means that 56.4% of Americans represented by Democrats only get 50% of the votes in the Senate, and 43.6% represented by Republicans get an equal 50%. Adding two Democrats would be a step toward fair representation. What’s wrong with more fairness?

The U.S. House recently passed the For the People Act of 2021, reforms to help secure voting rights, including endorsing DC statehood. Bills formally granting DC statehood have been introduced in the House and Senate. Some opponents point out that the U.S. Constitution mandates a federal capital outside the control of any state. That’s true, but the Constitution doesn’t designate the exact federal district. The statehood bills call for the capital to encompass the federal buildings where the government conducts business, not the homes where citizens live. The district changed size in the retrocession of 1847, so there’s precedent for revision to our capital area.

Our nation will soon debate how DC citizens are represented in our government. Will we choose to make our country more fair or more foul?

Let’s go back to the story of the American denied voting rights at the beginning of this article. That also describes the citizens of Puerto Rico, except that they’re even more disenfranchised because they can’t vote for president. And Puerto Rico is home to 3 million American citizens, more than about 20 current states.

DC residents pay the highest rate of federal taxes per capita in the country, and citizens in Puerto Rico pay most federal taxes. What happened to “No taxation without representation”? Who’s ready to join our fellow citizens tossing some tea into the Potomac River and la Bahía de San Juan?

John Sheirer is an author and teacher who lives in Florence. His book, “Positively Toward the Negative,” contains his Gazette columns from 2016-2020. Find him at JohnSheirer.com.


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