The US House of Representative’s overwhelming vote today in favor of the admission of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth as the 51st US state affirms that Washington, DC residents are entitled to equal voting rights.
The House’s vote on H.R. 51 is the first time either chamber of Congress has meaningfully addressed DC residents’ longstanding deprivation of these rights. The district’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has been pushing for passage of such legislation for decades.
DC residents do not have any voting representation in the US Congress and, though the district is now governed by a representative Council and mayor, its local laws are reviewed by Congress, which retains authority over its budget.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the US has ratified, provides that citizens have the right to “universal and equal suffrage.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that interprets the ICCPR, has noted that this means that where people exercise power through representatives, the treaty requires that “those representatives do in fact exercise … power.” The DC Delegate has not had such power. Due to this situation, the Human Rights Committee in 2014 urged the US to “provide for the full voting rights of residents of Washington D.C.”
International human rights law does not specify how voting rights should be realized, but the House bill would satisfy its requirements, granting equal voting representation to DC residents through the election of two senators and a representative.
The persistent denial of equal voting rights in the city also reflects structural racism. Washington, DC has long been majority African American, and is nearly 50 percent Black.
President Donald Trump has indicated that he would veto the bill, though it is expected to stall in the Republican-majority Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has previously said that it would not be brought to the floor for a vote.
The question of DC’s admission as the nation’s 51st state aside, US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should realize its residents’ voting rights, and finally retire DC’s “Taxation without Representation” license plates.