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On election day in D.C., Erin Goodyear got in line to cast her ballot at the Columbia Heights Community Center. Four hours later, ballot cast and sticker displayed, she went home, in the middle of a pandemic and as people across the city peacefully protested against police brutality and anti-black racism.
A Ward 1 Democratic voter, Goodyear was not voting in any competitive races; only the presidential race had more than one candidate. “I just kind of decided once it became very clear this was going to be hours of waiting, that it really was the principle of voting that I was in line for. And being able to exercise that right,” she says. And because D.C. is not a state, its elected officials in the federal government—ones Goodyear and thousands of D.C. residents waited hours to vote for in the D.C. primary—largely cannot cast votes in Congress. Some voters City Paper heard from reported not casting votes for those federal politicians at all because they feel they have no power.
The injustice of disenfranchising some 700,000 Washingtonians has many familiar effects. Politicians that D.C. residents didn’t elect routinely attempt to contravene the will of its people, and they disburse disproportionately small federal dollars to the city. But this month, another issue came to the fore: the military occupation of D.C.
In early June, the city’s streets teemed with members of the National Guard, while hundreds of active duty troops were airlifted to military bases just outside D.C. Last Monday, members of the National Guard backed up Park Police and other law enforcement agencies as they fired chemical weapons at protesters gathered in front of the White House. The officers deployed tear gas well before Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 7 p.m. curfew, clearing the way for President Donald Trump’s church-front propagandist photo shoot. Unlike state governors, Bowser cannot activate the National Guard herself. She must ask the president to do so. Nor can she refuse troops from other states should the president deploy them, as happened last week. The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration also considered seizing control of the D.C. police, which the Home Rule Act likely allows.
“I think that the events of the last several days demonstrate that our fight for statehood is more than about getting two senators. It’s also about our right as taxpaying Americans to autonomy, and the autonomy that can only be fully achieved with statehood,” Bowser said last Tuesday.
“It’s back in the frame for press and for Twitter, but for over 700,000 residents of Washington who are locked out of democracy, this issue never leaves the frame,” says Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager with 51 for 51, a national campaign focused on passing statehood legislation in the Senate with 51 votes. “For over 200 years, a place where mostly black and brown people live [has] been denied congressional representation in Congress even though they pay taxes.”
Any policy that disproportionately disenfranchises people of color is, in addition to a civil rights issue, a race issue. And arguments against statehood—that D.C. is unfit to govern itself, that it will cause parking issues at Congress, that D.C. residents should move if they want representation—are racist.
“I think the framing of what’s happening right now is important. I think the racial dynamic is important,” says Rhodes. “And as people sort of search for solutions, I think statehood should be at the top of the list for how we move forward with racial justice in our country.”
“We’re a large city, we have 700,000 people, but I’m not allowed to vote for the people who would actually impact that decision,” Allison Hrabar, a Ward 4 voter says about statehood. Disenfranchisement is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Some voters City Paper heard from reported feeling helpless when it comes to statehood. Others try to push friends and family who live in other states to write their own representatives. They educate themselves and others. One favors retrocession. Here is what three people involved in the fight for statehood say D.C. residents can do:
Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s longtime delegate to the House of Representatives, introduces a statehood bill every year, but in September of 2019, HR 51, got a historic committee hearing. “That bill, by the way, already has enough co-sponsors to pass this year,” she says. “Now that we have enough co-sponsors to pass the bill, I would hate for us to wait past November.”
She says that D.C. residents can do two things. First, “if D.C. residents wanted to do something, they would email the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi] and thank her for her support, but asking her not to let the Congress close down this year without passing the D.C. statehood bill.” Last Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement that he “fully intend[s]” to bring HR 51 to a vote this year. (Earlier this year, Hoyer promised to hold a vote on the bill before the summer.)
And second, in the Republican-controlled Senate, Holmes Norton says residents can “up the ante for Democrats who have been strongly supportive of the bill in the Senate and ask them to use imminent passage of the bill in the House to raise [its] profile in the Senate.”
51 for 51’s eyes are also on the Republican-controlled Senate, where a statehood bill would almost certainly fail. The group has focused on lobbying to change Senate rules so that a statehood bill could pass with 51 votes. Rhodes notes that former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Bidenhas said he supports this strategy, but adds, “I think it’s important for both residents of Washington, but also Americans at large, [to] continue to constantly pressure Vice President Joe Biden or nominee Joe Biden to continue to keep this at the forefront of his agenda.” The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment on his support of this strategy.
Of course, passing a statehood bill with 51 votes would also require the support of 51 senators; there are currently only 36 co-sponsors in the Senate. Rhodes says D.C. residents can continue to talk to people outside the District about getting both House and Senate Democrats and Republicans who don’t currently support the bill to do so.
She also says that 51 for 51 has focused most of its advocacy outside of D.C., because “a lot of people don’t really know what it means to be disenfranchised in the District.” And indeed, a 2019 Gallup survey says that most Americans don’t support D.C. statehood. Her ask for non-D.C. residents is to “learn more about what it means to be disenfranchised in D.C.” and to contact their representatives.
Bo Shuff, the Executive Director of DC Vote, recommends going to showup4dc.com, which has tools to help D.C. residents educate those who don’t live in the District about what statehood would mean. “We need to reach out beyond the District. That’s a really important project that District residents can help with,” he says.
“I’m a native Washingtonian,” says Robb Simms, who voted by mail in Ward 7. “I went to school here, I got my high school diploma here, I went to college here. I’m trying to make a living here. It’s incredible that members of the House and the Senate and even people in the White House don’t seem to care that we’re citizens just like everyone else in the United States.”