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Voting Rights for District of Columbia Citizens
Mark David Richards
Testimony to the City Council Subcommittee on Labor, Voting Rights and Redistricting
June 20, 2001




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Statement of Mark David Richards, Ph.D., Sociologist

Before the Subcommittee On Labor, Voting Rights and Redistricting of the Council of the District of Columbia

June 20, 2001

Thank you Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Graham, and Councilmember Orange for holding this roundtable on options for restoring voting rights in the District of Columbia. I am here today as a District citizen with a keen interest in this topic.

The topic of the political status of citizens of the District of Columbia is an exciting and difficult topic that has engaged the passions of District residents for two centuries, since George Washington chose the land that would become the District in 1791. If only we could be so lucky to have George Washington and other heroes of our War for Independence here today, offering their ideas for how to extend the American birthright to the residents of Washington, District of Columbia.

The most important thing D.C.’s elected officials can do in support of restoring—or gaining—voting rights is to strengthen D.C.’s local democracy, improve municipal management, and develop the economy. However, history shows that although optimal performance cannot be expected to result in rewards, inferior performance can certainly be expected to result in loss of the partial rule that has been delegated to officials.

Congress Rules the District

For District residents, the question of how to restore what was lost hundreds of years ago is difficult to answer because the resources of District citizens are significantly less than the body that wields exclusive legislative authority in all cases whatsoever over their society. Thus far, the elected representatives of the fifty states have not been willing to allow residents of the District to vote as equals in The People’s House on The Hill. Every ten years when the Census is taken for apportioning seats to the House of Representatives, the count for District citizens is excluded. Although the American capital is the only one of all country’s claiming democracy that bars the door of the national legislature to its capital district residents, there has been little incentive to change the status quo.

Congress has the right to deny D.C.’s participation in that body until the nation either makes District citizens part of a state or a state of its own, or modifies the Constitution under which exclusive legislative authority is exercised. The Constitution of 1787 gave it the right to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over the seat of government (Article I, Section 8, §17), not to exceed ten miles square, once an area was ceded to the federal government by the states that held jurisdiction.

In 1800, Augustus Woodward, a lawyer who wrote under the pen name "Epaminondas," recognized that Congressional assumption of exclusive legislative control would place District citizens in a situation that would be hard to reverse. He argued against the First Federalist Congress assuming exclusive power, noting that "[a] grant of power to do an act, does not impose an obligation to exercise that power."

Epaminondas wrote: "The effect of an assumption then, is to reduce us to that political situation, which Americans deprecate; we are to be governed by laws, in the making of which, we have no participation; we have no share in the state governments, of which we have no reason to complain, for we are separated from them; but we have no share in electing the members of congress, who are exclusively to legislate for us. We are reduced to the mortifying situation, of being subject to laws, made, or to be made, by we know not whom; by agents, not of our choice, in no degree responsible to us, who from their situation, and the circumstance of having other constituents to serve, are not likely to be very tender of our rights, or very much alive to our interests. We resort in vain to the constitution, for the means of relief; from that instrument, we cannot hope to have our situation ameliorated." …

He urged that, should Congress choose to assume exclusive legislative authority, it should establish a Territorial elected legislature in Washington City, and pass a Constitutional amendment to give District citizens the vote for President and Vice-President, senators, and when the population had grown sufficiently, a representative.

On February 27, 1801 centralists won the day when the First Federal Congress voted to assume exclusive legislative power over the District, their last act before Federalists lost power for all time. Since that day, as District residents have watched and even cheered from the sidelines, Congress has admitted thirty-four states whose citizens have gained all rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. But, as the historic record and day-to-day experience show, Epaminondas was correct about the lot of District citizens. They have appealed to the Supreme Court, and found that it does not believe it can force Congress to apportion or include D.C. I am not an expert on the legal implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling, but it is not difficult to understand that D.C.’s options relate to persuading Congress to take some action. If not, D.C.’s status will apparently not change.

Efforts to Modify the federal/District relationship

Even in Congress, there has been disagreement about what exclusive legislative authority should mean, and that disagreement started early on. President Monroe (1818) said, "…Congress legislates in all cases, directly, on local concerns of the District. As this is a departure, for a special purpose, from the general principles of our system, it may merit consideration, whether an arrangement better adopted to the principle of our government… may not be devised…" One can trace how perceptions among federal officials changed over the years—from Congress looking out for the interests of District citizens because they were not represented to being considered people who live off the federal largesse. In both cases, the District is considered a ward of the federal government, or a federal agency. The relationship between the federal government and the District has always been somewhat paternal, but more often than not in an unhealthy way. The federal government wants to have and control its national capital—but it wants citizens living in that area to finance the effort. The arrangement is not unlike the one that caused George Washington and other patriots to fight for independence.

District citizens have learned from 200 years of experience, documented in the historical record, that there are good reasons to try to modify the federal-local relationship. It is clear that Congress gives D.C. responsibilities for most state, county, and city functions—responsibilities D.C. enjoys having despite fumbling more frequently than desired. But, these responsibilities are given without compensation or a means to develop resources (no PILOTaxes, many exemptions and costs are imposed on the local jurisdiction, etc.). As legislators, you are well aware of how Congress controls D.C.’s checkbook.

And D.C. has lived with taxation without representation in Congress for its entire history since jurisdiction was transferred from the ceding states to the federal government. I applaud you for putting this factual information on the District’s license plate. As my elected representatives, I am humiliated when you are called like children before Congressional oversight committees to answer for decisions that were made through the legislative process. In the District, it seems that only when the federal government takes power do they share more of the burden of maintaining the infrastructure. So the Catch-22 Cycle is this: D.C. has economic instability, therefore, D.C. doesn’t deserve democracy. D.C. doesn’t have democracy, therefore, D.C. is economically unstable. I believe a key reason that District citizens have sought changes has related to trying to gain economic stability and make social progress.

Since 1800, District citizens have taken steps to gain greater or equal citizenship rights. Although Congress has established and modified on several occasions the governance structure it established to administer the affairs of the District, the fundamental status of most District citizens has not improved for two hundred years. This has never been a major national issue. But there is a long legacy of local debate and struggle to redefine the relationship between the federal government and the District. I documented many elements of that struggle in my doctoral dissertation, "Hope and Delusion: Struggle for Democracy in the District of Columbia (2001)."

The primary approaches District citizens have attempted that would have significantly modified their status were (1) retrocession, (2) statehood, and (3) amending the Constitution. There is little disagreement that these approaches can be taken. Each presents obstacles and challenges—all are daunting.

In 1801, one member of Congress who thought Congress should retrocede the area back to the original states said that one day D.C. citizens would want statehood. Before the Civil War, residents of Alexandria City and Georgetown were interested in returning to their original states. Alexandria succeeded in 1846, foreshadowing the Civil War. The Congressional record shows that the issue was directly related to the question of slavery. Presidents Lincoln and Taft and some Congressmen, who didn’t think George Washington’s "Ten-Mile Square" should have been fragmented in 1846, spoke of reuniting the full District, but representatives from Virginia said they would never give up Alexandria City again. All along, Washington City residents tended to go their own way, and preferred the approach suggested by Epaminondas.

After the remaining separate jurisdictions of the District (Washington City, Washington County, and Georgetown) were consolidated into one with a so-called Territorial government in the 1870s (Governor and Upper House appointed by President, Lower House elected), it was only a few years before the new "city-state" lost its Home Rule government to federal commissioners for one hundred years. The reason given was overspending by the Governor to repair the dilapidated infrastructure after the Civil War, but the main reason was to prevent newly freed blacks from voting. Local elites and Congress forged a deal in which local self-government was traded in exchange for Congress paying half the municipal budget, and D.C. would pay off the debt. Congress reduced its proportion of compensation rapidly, but not its power. Disagreements arose over what was municipal and what was federal (for example, did the zoo belong to D.C. or the federal government?). The Board of Trade and local elites continually hoped to impress Congress into increasing its share of compensation for municipal expenses, or at minimum restrain anger over disagreements.

Without any elected officials to work on their behalf, many D.C. citizens organized voluntary civic and citizen associations, á la Tocqueville, and worked to protect the interests of their neighborhood(s) and business interests. It wasn’t long after D.C. lost local self-government that D.C. citizens began asking for political representation in the federal government. The business classes were particularly interested in federal voting rights, but less so in Home Rule. There was a fear that those without property would not respect property interests (this is an important reason to increase home ownership). Calls for national representation picked up after the debt was paid off just before 1920.

For the most part, District officials have attempted to improve the status quo via Congressional legislation modifying each Congressionally defined governing arrangement in a way that would benefit citizens without "disturbing national control." Even early attempts at a Constitutional amendment were framed not in terms of granting D.C. citizens the same political rights as citizens who live in states, but rather in terms of empowering Congress to correct this inequity without disturbing in the slightest national control of the Capital or the present form of municipal government"(The Citizens’ Joint Committee on National Representation for the District of Columbia, 1933).

Citizens organized year after year, through World War I and II, and in parallel with the Civil Rights movement. The media played a key role in reporting on events created by organizations to draw attention to the issue. The states approved one measure: in 1961, a limited Constitutional amendment for the Presidential vote was passed and ratified by the states.

Congress has also modified the District’s governing arrangement legislatively numerous times, including:

  • 1968—an elected school board was approved;
  • 1970—a non-voting delegate was approved; and in
  • 1973—a limited home rule government was approved.

Some citizens, including Julius Hobson, called the Home Rule agreement "Home Fool." Others said there was a "plan" to see that this arrangement would fail, that the federal government would one day take governance back completely. Others were happy to have made incremental progress.

The benefit of having an elected school board and a home rule government has been to establish an operational electoral apparatus (the ward system) that could support national voting rights.

In 1985, a bi-partisan coalition in Congress approved a Constitutional amendment to grant D.C. the right to representatives in the Senate and the House. But D.C. did not succeed in gaining approval from the states and the proposed amendment lost during President Reagan’s term by 22 states (16 approved). The Amendment did not have adequate backing or resources, and opponents had gained experience with the Equal Rights Amendment and launched a campaign in which they trained people to switch the debate from principle to method: They would agree that in principle D.C. should have the vote, but the method chosen (Amendment) was not acceptable because it would make the District a "city state," or a "virtual state."

Many in D.C. could not get excited about trying to pass a limited voting rights amendment because they wanted both local self-government and voting rights via statehood. The statehood movement grew, even as many elected officials and the local media ignored or downplayed the subject. Citizens demonstrated their support for statehood using the Initiative process, and gained approval for a statehood Constitution. In 1993, the House of Representatives voted on statehood: 153 voted yes, but D.C. was 63 votes short.

Perhaps as a consolation prize, in 1993, Democrats legislatively granted D.C.’s non-voting delegate a symbolic vote in Committee of Whole of the House of Representatives, but a Republican Congress legislatively took away that privilege when it won control of the House in 1995.

This illustrates another two points: Legislative solutions are temporary solutions. And, D.C. is trapped in a partisan situation. I sometimes wonder if D.C. would not be better served by having a non-partisan elected Delegate. That idea, however, defies the reality of the party system and the way Congress works. D.C. faces a Catch-22.

After 200 years, we should understand this clearly: The status of District citizens is not settled or fixed. The issue is intergenerational, and D.C. citizens throughout the ages have kept searching for solutions—lobbying, protesting, filing lawsuits, and practicing civil disobedience. Citizens have neither been silenced nor gained critical mass. No solution will be easy or short-term. And some solutions might ever hinder the District from achieving full political equality in the long run. A partial voting rights amendment, if passed, could be very difficult to undo—the District could be left as politically unequal forever. So, here we are today, hopeful or delusional, seeking how to leave a stronger foundation for future District citizens, to solve this puzzle left to us by our founders.

D.C. must have a duel strategy in which she builds support both in Congress and among other Americans.

BASE OF National Support for D.C. Equal Rights

As part of my doctoral research I established baseline data on awareness of this issue, support for Congressional voting rights, and methods to achieve equal rights. Professionally, I am a consultant on national opinion research, often for strategic planning purposes. I developed a study and hired professionally trained interviewers from Bruskin Research to interview a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adults. In 1997, 86% supported D.C. citizens having the right to elect their own local officials. Twenty-five years after D.C. was granted limited Home Rule, support for self-government had increased by 21 percentage points. (A question was first asked by George Gallup in 1949—65% supported).

I did not find any historic national data on Congressional voting rights for D.C. citizens (perhaps there is proprietary data that I am unaware of). So in 1999, as D.C. waited for the three judge panel to review the two D.C. lawsuits, I funded data collection from another nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults. I found that after providing a small amount of information, 72% thought D.C. should have equal voting rights in the Senate and the House of Representatives. This support crossed political party lines—81% of Democrats, 71% Independents, 61% Republicans supported.

The data show there is a base of support to begin with, to build upon and activate into a policy choice. But public support is latent—not active. And one must remember that opinions can change. Therefore, any effort to activate public support should be done carefully as part of a long-term strategy. The District has the advantage of starting from the "moral high ground." Like in an election, support is "dynamic"—and could change depending on how the issue is framed.


There are many reasons why D.C. hasn’t achieved greater levels of political equality over 200 years—today I will focus on a few reasons, some of which D.C. citizens can do something about.

First, race and class or socio-economic factors have always been important. White supremacy and slavery have created a history of distrust that today has not completely disappeared. Although D.C.’s Home Rule government was the first in D.C. to integrate women and African-Americans into governance, race is still an important issue in D.C. and in the nation. Some believe D.C. has not achieved their rights because the area is majority African-American, while others disagree with this assessment. Class and socio-economic factors are sometimes described in D.C. as the West of the Park/East of the River divide.

Although I am not certain how to solve the problem if these are the primary factors, they are important to recognize and to be sensitive to in forming coalitions. It is important to recognize that a majority of African-Americans in D.C. support statehood, compared to fewer Caucasians. Recall that on the elected versus appointed school board issue, opinions also divided along racial lines.

The second reason is that D.C. is not seen as a real place… D.C. has a double identity in which Washington has been assigned the very meaning of what Americans in general (and local D.C. citizens in particular) dislike—an impervious federal government and the erosion of local self-government. D.C.’s very name has been twisted to mean what it dislikes! We must systematically ask for respect from nationally elected officials and show other Americans this is a real place. There is good work underway through the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition to showcase D.C. neighborhoods to visitors.

Third, Americans do not know about or understand the nature of the problem. In my 1999 study of some of the most informed Americans, college graduate voters, 56 percent were not aware that D.C. does not have equal voting rights in the Senate and the House (many think D.C. already has these rights). Even tourist guidebooks to D.C. hardly cover the story. A content analysis of 27 tourist guidebooks that I did in 2000 showed the federal and local issues are blurred and not clearly explained. D.C.’s own Convention and Visitors Association publications didn’t even mention the issue!

Fourth, D.C. citizens seem to love to argue and feud, and sometimes they just don’t work toward consensus and try to find agreement! This has been a key issue throughout D.C. history—different neighborhoods and groups undermine one another. On the issue of what remedy would best accomplish what D.C. wants, residents fragment. In 2000, 58 percent of D.C. citizens supported statehood in a Washington Post survey. The major division in D.C. was not by class, but by race: 63 percent of African Americans supported statehood (30% opposed), while 45 percent of Caucasians supported (50% opposed). Regionally, a poll by Wirthlin Group in 1994 found 53 percent in D.C. supported statehood, but 57 percent in D.C.’s suburbs in Maryland and Virginia opposed statehood. That same poll found about 20 percent in D.C. and regionally supported merging D.C. into Maryland.

D.C. citizens—and the region—need to spend more time thinking about the different remedies, understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each, and developing greater levels of consensus on the elements that are minimum requirements regardless of the method taken. (See attached chart.) I believe we not only need EQUAL federal voting rights, but we also need a SECURE local legislature. I’m not sure if we can have voting rights in Congress if at any time that same body can abolish our local legislature.

The last reason I’ll mention today for why D.C. hasn’t won equal political rights is that there are many people living in D.C. who accept the status quo, are complacent, or apathetic. D.C. citizens would be served to think more carefully about the how they would personally benefit by having equal constitutional rights. D.C. needs adult history courses!

This is an intergenerational issue and we must become more organized to compensate for our weaknesses. The District needs well-informed, bold, and fearless leaders to unite District citizens behind an agenda on which there is large-scale agreement. We are not adequately organized to succeed.


Establish a District Office for Equal Constitutional Rights

In writing my dissertation on this subject, I learned that information, while available, is not easy to locate and is not synthesized and analyzed. There is much research that still needs to be conducted. In my own area of expertise, there has been very little public opinion research on this subject conducted in the District, the region, in the nation, and among key audiences. In the economic arena, there is much to be done.

For District citizens, this issue is intergenerational. The current generation would be served by evaluating its choices from the perspective of the 200-year legacy of citizens—there is much to be learned from these efforts.

District citizens may benefit from institutionalizing the collection and organization of solid information.

I recommend that a District Office for Equal Constitutional Rights be established. The Office could be charged with establishing and updating factual information on this issue and making it widely accessible to citizens. It must unite the divided District interests. This would include compiling information that already exists, identifying information still needed. In addition, the Office could develop and implement an educational strategy, such as including the subject in high school curriculum and providing yearly updates to travel writers. The Office should also monitor the national political landscape and advise District citizens of potential opportunities.

Congress would likely not allow the District government to spend local taxpayer money for such an effort; therefore, the Office may need to be sustained with foundational or private support.

Develop a Strategic Plan

To succeed, D.C. must achieve greater local consensus on approaches. D.C. citizens do not appear to be united. Your leadership in calling this roundtable today could be important in this effort. D.C. citizens have good reason not to be too hopeful, but rather depressed! But many are undaunted. I believe any effort to increase local consensus will require the use of public involvement methods beyond legislative hearings that involve larger numbers of citizens who learn about the options, and express their choices. Neighborhood Action was a method that could be used. A Deliberative Poll (James Fishkin) could be used. Or another method could be devised using the existing Advisory Neighborhood Commission structure. I have given considerable thought to public involvement approaches for achieving legitimacy in the decision-making process and public consent.

D.C. needs to develop a strategic plan for how it plans to achieve its goals. A strategic plan should have a vision statement; long-, intermediate-, and short-term goals; methods to achieve the goals; and milestones for celebrating progress. Roles and responsibilities for advancing political equality for D.C. citizens can be integrated across the District’s elected bodies and agencies. But how can one expect to advance and find a role to play without a clearly established plan? This would also serve to let Congress and the nation know what D.C. wants.

Develop a Smart Campaign to Win

This issue requires informing people and making D.C.’s best case in a short amount of time. But D.C. has very limited resources, so she must develop a smart campaign. Following are some elements of a smart campaign:

Information Development—To argue the case for D.C.’s vision of political equality, D.C. must have clarity of thought. This requires knowledge and analysis. D.C. needs to identify what studies and information is needed to make its case more clearly. For example, I frequently hear people make the statement that the federal government pays for or subsidizes D.C. and census statistics can be taken (out of context) to show D.C. is the federal government’s welfare child. I have not yet found a good economic study that lays out this issue clearly. This is but one piece of information that is critical to making our case.

Audiences—D.C. must prioritize its audiences and target its messages. Audiences include Congress, State legislatures, City Councils and urban interests, rural interests, media, Wall Street, opinion leaders, Civil Rights groups. D.C. needs to systematically understand what they know and what they think. Research that can be used to refine D.C.’s strategy and messages should be conducted amongst these audiences.

Messages—While there are many things one can say to make ones point, not all are equally persuasive or effective. Research can identify which messages are most effective. To simply guess which messages might be most effective is wasteful and can be risky and even backfire. If one has 15 seconds to make a point, what is the most compelling point to make? In my experience of testing messages for clients, it is difficult to guess which messages are most effective. Typically, if one is "selling" an idea or product, one must explain the benefits. I have started to develop messages that could be tested among public audiences. Once messages are prioritized, they can be integrated into talks, brochures, advertising, and other communications vehicles, where they can be personalized.

Create Local Symbols of Civic Pride

Another way to institutional this issue is to create local symbols of civic pride, such as annual events or days on which citizens observe and celebrate the successes they have made. This could take the form of an annual Elected officials’ Day or Democracy Day on which District residents could honor those who serve as elected officials and those who work hard to expand D.C.’s democracy. Recognize the contributions people make and share in success.

The D.C. mayor and Council should create public and media events. On November 6th, 1928, District citizens had a "Day of Humiliation," because that was the day on which the President and Congress were elected, and the day in which the inhabitants of D.C. had no part. Citizens also produced educational souvenirs at the inaugural and distributed the souvenirs to those coming to D.C. to celebrate.

Another idea might be to have each neighborhood establish a "Freedom Light," or something similar to the Liberty Poles of the colonists. Each time citizens walked by the light in their neighborhood, they would be reminded of the goal.


This is an exciting topic. Many want to understand this issue, to get their hands around it. No one can do this alone—this must be an inclusive team effort, or D.C. is unlikely to succeed.


Thank you Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Graham, and Councilmember Orange for holding this roundtable. My name is Mark David Richards. I am a District citizen and a sociologist.

I have provided a detailed statement, but will mention a few brief points today.

1. We know that the purpose of the arrangement established by the founding fathers was not to take away the rights of DC residents. The Constitution of 1787 gave Congress exclusive legislative authority in all cases whatsoever over their seat of government so Congress would not have to depend on any one state for its security. In arguing for this, James Madison said local residents would have a local legislature and Alexander Hamilton said the Constitution could be amended to give DC citizens voting rights in Congress after their population grew. Unfortunately, Congress has not fixed the situation since they took power in 1801. Since, DC residents have cheered from the sidelines as Congress has added 34 states whose citizens have gained all the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship—but here we are today in DC, still trying to figure out how to get equal rights! National public opinion research I conducted shows that the majority of college graduate voters are not even aware that DC citizens have no vote in the Senate and the House – people can hardly believe such a thing exists in the capital of the American democracy.

2. The serious problems created by the current arrangement have been known to DC residents since the early 1800s, but these problems have not been explained or personalized to the American public. For 200 years, the result of having people in charge of DC who are not elected by or sensitive to DC residents’ interests has been to slow social progress and economic development, which has resulted in higher local taxes. Congress not only controls DC’s local budget—which comes from local taxpayers, not Congress, but it does not contribute a fair market value for services it demands! Americans have no idea.

3. It is important to separate long-term from short-term goals. DC’s long-term goal should be to achieve the same rights enjoyed by citizens who live in states. Opinion research shows that nearly three quarters (72%) of American adults believe DC citizens should have equal voting rights in the Senate and the House and even larger majorities believe DC citizens should have local self-government. Why should DC citizens have less than equal rights? We should not sell ourselves short, even if that means waiting for the right time.

4. DC citizens need to be much more organized and to turn up the volume significantly. My main recommendations are to:

(a) Establish a District Office for Equal Constitutional Rights to centralize factual information, making it widely accessible to citizens in their efforts to achieve equal rights.

(b) Develop greater local consensus on long-term approaches and a strategic plan.

(c) Develop a smart campaign by conducting research among key audiences and developing effective messages for outreach.

(d) Create local symbols of civic pride, such as an Elected Officials’ Day or Democracy Day to celebrate the gains DC has made (such as regaining Home Rule in 1974 and winning the right to vote for President) and to recognize those who contribute to furthering the cause of achieving equal Constitutional rights for District citizens.

I hope you will read the full statement. Thank you.

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