William & Mary’s Election Law Program and DC Vote co-hosted a symposium on Rethinking DC Representation in Congress on February 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. The symposium impaneled several highly regarded Constitutional law experts and voting rights advocates. Residents of Washington, DC have long lacked Congressional representation, notwithstanding over two centuries of advocacy by voting rights supporters. Despite a long history of amending the Constitution in order to enfranchise previously-ignored groups (African-Americans, women, and individuals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one) legislators and federal courts have given short shrift to voting rights for residents of the nation’s capital. Maryland State Senator and American University Law Professor Jamie Raskin emphasized that for DC residents, “Constitutional democracy has broken down. It has never really existed.”
Yale Law Professor Heather Gerken discussed the difficulties inherent in securing support for a movement that, by its very definition, does not directly affect federal legislators. Participants discussed how, although the right to vote garners strong support in polls, taxation without representation in the capital city is simply too diffuse a harm for elites to champion. Although various members of Congress have proposed legislation in support of this right over the years, legislation ultimately failed to pass due to a lack of concerted support.
At the symposium, former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis outlined the history of Congressional efforts in support of DC voting rights, and emphasized the need for dedicated and coordinated efforts involving both Republicans and Democrats. Former White House Counsel Bob Bauer expanded on Davis’ call for bipartisanship by suggesting that DC voting rights advocates appeal to the emotions of legislators and constituents in order to highlight the sheer injustice of taxation without representation. Fresh on the heels of his experience co-chairing the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (a well-regarded bipartisan effort aiming to find common ground and promote sensible election administration reforms), Bauer suggested that bipartisan cooperation can and should be achieved on issues like the lack of DC representation, which everyone can agree is an injustice. The problem, however, is agreeing on a solution.