The world may change; but D.C. voting rights remain the same

The last time D.C. residents went to the polls to cast a vote for or against a D.C. statehood referendum, 52 American diplomats and citizens were being held hostage in Tehran by the Ayatollah Khomeini; the AIDS-causing virus hadn’t yet been discovered, let alone controlled; and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had only been launched the previous year. The Cold War between East and West was at full pitch. 

Now China has become the world’s second largest economy and the Berlin Wall is no more. Even Eastern Europe’s democratic color revolutions have come and gone. South Africa has long since dismantled apartheid.

{mosads}In other words, most everything in the world appears to have changed since 1980; that is, except, of course, the non-voting status of District of Columbia residents.

Our sorry political status remains conspicuously the same. We enjoy no right to equal congressional representation; nor, for that matter, are we permitted by Congress full local autonomy to run our daily affairs as only we see fit.

Whether it’s 1980, 1880 or 1801, it makes little difference to Washingtonians because in a political sense, time has virtually stopped, even as the world around us has greatly changed. Our right to independence, our right to equality, our right to congressional representation is by and large the same as it was 216 years ago. That is to say, nonexistent.

The fact that there has been no remedy granted District residents within these past two centuries makes for a strange tale in American history. Even so, today D.C. citizens appear to be more devoted than ever to winning equal rights under law. It is a testament to their resilience and fortitude that no matter the level of opposition they face, they remain dedicated to the proposition that all American citizens should share in the bounty of the rights of full citizenship.

Will a vote in favor of the D.C. statehood referendum help push the District’s down the road to equity of treatment?

We say emphatically, yes. Our position may be based on an abundance of hope, but if history teaches us anything, it’s this: A just cause endowed with a true sense of moral clarity that’s purposefully pursued can and will prevail. Think the attainment women’s rights; the abolition of slavery; the fall of the Soviet Union and the death of apartheid.

In all of those cases, opponents eventually became proponents of change, because they themselves changed.

We believe this kind of paradigm shift will happen in the minds of those who oppose empowering District of Columbia residents once they fully understand the very real harm they do to their fellow Americans. This assumption may seem naïve, but we maintain that history is destined to repeat itself, even in the case of the District’s bid for statehood.

The French philosopher, John Locke, believed that people were endowed with natural rights, and his liberal philosophies helped inspire the emergence of American democratic values, making America what it is. We’re confident that the continuing denial of our right to enjoy equal congressional representation and full local autonomy violates Mr. Locke’s theory of natural rights because above all, those rights include the right to enjoy full equality before the law.

This is what District of Columbia residents are missing and what they deserve. There is nothing natural about our constitutional predicament; it is wholly artificial, and if it can be made, it can also be un-made.

To illustrate just how artificial it is, let’s imagine that the District of Columbia is Moscow, Russia’s capital city. And for the sake of argument, let’s say that the citizens of Moscow were suddenly disenfranchised. That is, their right to representation in the State Duma, Russia’s legislative body, was withdrawn because the country’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, had decided that he didn’t much like their brand of politics, after all. Perhaps those Muscovites were just too liberal for him. That Muscovites could be stripped of their right to vote—even in an oligarchic state—for political reasons—would send tremors through the United States Congress. There would be no shortage of denouncements from that quarter.

But closer to home, Congress’s zeal for changing D.C.’s undemocratic status leaves something to be desired because it’s never been elevated to a national priority. Perhaps during a President Clinton Administration, it will. Perhaps. 

Nevertheless, those in power should consider our disenfranchisement in the light of how it would appear if other citizens living in capital cities in other countries were suddenly deprived of their voting rights. Perhaps it might influence their perspective.

Until then, the world may change, but the prohibition against voting rights and statehood in Washington, D.C. is likely to remain what it has always been: unnatural.

Nevertheless, a majority vote in support of D.C. statehood on Nov. 8 is warranted. It may not necessarily bring about immediate change; but it will resoundingly demonstrate to the nation that we believe the Great Wall of our disenfranchisement will sooner rather than later come tumbling down.

Mr. Cooper and Mr. Capozzi are long-time D.C. statehood and voting rights advocates. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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