D.C., The Colony

I love Washington, D.C. I love the monuments and museums that dot the National Mall, I love the cobblestone streets split by old trolley tracks that run through Georgetown, and I even love the dank, musty smell that permeates the air in my local Metro station. I could not be prouder to inform people that, when I say I come from Washington, D.C., I mean it. Unlike the Marylander or Virginian who lives in a suburb just outside the District’s bounds yet insists on calling him or herself a D.C. native, I actually reside within the 10-square-mile, diamond-shaped area our forefathers carved out centuries ago.

But, despite my hometown love and pride, I cast my ballot as a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts in November’s election. That is because I wanted a voice, and voters in Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital and center of the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the country, have no voting representation in Congress. This needs to change.

D.C. license plates clearly display the following slogan: “Taxation without representation.” The motto should sound particularly familiar to Bostonians who remember tales of the original Tea Party: angry Sons of Liberty dumping cargo into their city’s harbor to protest British-imposed taxes on tea and other goods. The Sons of Liberty were acting on behalf of colonists who maintained that, since they supported the British government by paying taxes and were subject to its regulation, they ought to have a voice in making its laws.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to “exercise legislation in all cases” over D.C. For centuries, this provision meant that D.C. was ruled exclusively by Congress and forbidden from electing its own local government. It also meant that the District, since it was not a state, was entitled neither to votes in the Electoral College nor to representatives in the House or Senate.

Perhaps when the United States had just been formed, when no one could have predicted that D.C. would become a major city with a substantial population of permanent residents or that the national government would play such an active role in those residents’ daily lives, it did not seem so wrong to deprive District-dwellers of voting representation. But D.C. has grown and established itself as an important metropolitan area, and the national government’s actions certainly do affect its citizens in significant ways.


In Federalist Paper 43, James Madison gave another reason D.C. was not created as a state with voting rights: Since the central government had to hold supreme authority over the states, making D.C. a state would result in an imbalance of power. Madison thought that other states would bow down to D.C., impeding their independence. But time has proven this argument wrong. Texas, for example, does not affirm gay marriage even though it is legal in the city where the Capitol building is located, and it is unlikely that granting that city a few votes in Congress would change the longhorn state’s stance.  In short, states will not change the amount they pander to the federal government if D.C. gains representation.

It took nearly 200 years before any action at all was taken to address D.C.’s problem. And even that action only provided a partial solution. In 1961, 23rd Amendment to the Constitution gave D.C. residents a say in the presidential election for the first time in history. In 1970, the District of Columbia Delegate Act gave them a non-voting representative in the House. And in 1973, the District of Columbia Home Rule Act gave them their own local elected government.

Still, the District government’s laws are subject to review and revision by Congress. And D.C.’s House delegate may only serve on committees and speak on the floor; she is not allowed to vote on legislation. What’s more, D.C. lacks even that in the Senate.

The District of Columbia ought to have full voting representation in Congress.  The fact that over 617,000 United States citizens—more than the population of Wyoming and only slightly less than that of Vermont—are shut out from the legislative branch of the national government is shocking. That anyone in our country is denied a role in shaping the policies that govern them undermines the theory of representative democracy that defines us.

The only way to constitutionally correct this oversight is once again to amend our nation’s founding document to give D.C. residents the representation they deserve. There has been opposition to taking this final and necessary step, maybe because of political concerns: D.C. is overwhelmingly Democratic. But when it comes to correcting a fundamental constitutional defect, we must set partisanship aside.

As a student at an out-of-(non)-state school, I am lucky enough to receive the representation in our lawmaking body for four years. But other D.C. residents are not so fortunate. They cannot simply relocate their political allegiance for elections, and so they remain voiceless. It is high time for the United States to give D.C. real representation in all levels of our national government. It is high time for this country to live up to the ideals for which it was established. It is high time for us to eliminate this colonial relationship.

Molly L. Roberts ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Holworthy Hall.


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