The D.C. flag being waved outside the U.S. Capitol
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The U.S. Census Bureau released the results of their every-decade count Thursday. The 2020 figures now give a glimpse of a new America with a shrinking White population and more Hispanic and Asian residents. This updated picture will change the face of America, not only in how $1.5 trillion, with a “T,” in funds are distributed—but also how federal districts get redrawn.

This invites back the spooky G word… gerrymandering. When the Census is released, states redraw their boundaries to better reflect their changing demographics. In a perfect world, they’d be drawn to closely reflect the makeup of communities based on political views, race, and other factors. We do not live in a perfect world, so often the party in control of the state will draw lines to give itself political advantages. This is gerrymandering.

But Washington, D.C. isn’t involved in this process at the federal level (though the city’s growth over the past decade will lead to ward-level redistricting). We’re not a state, we don’t have representation in Congress (thanks in part to Alexander Hamilton, more on that later), and even if we were, we’d only have one representative based on our population.

“Everybody right now is taking a look at their own representation. Am I fairly represented?” Bo Shuff, executive director of DC Vote, which advocates for D.C. equality, says. “Are we actually represented by the people we have in office?”

“It’s an opportunity for us to teach Americans across the country as they start to think about their own representation. But you also have a line that was drawn 200 years ago that automatically excludes 700,000 people,” he adds. “Here’s 700,000 people, they should have 700,000 votes, and they should be balanced to count just like everybody else’s.”

Here’s how political maneuvering has kept D.C. residents disenfranchised for over 200 years.

Shuff argues the District is the first example of gerrymandering when it was created in 1790.

“There was literally a line randomly drawn in a nice diamond shape … and placed on the Potomac and everybody who lived inside of it lost representation,” he says. “It’s slightly different. But it is very much the same idea that the random line around the District of Columbia prevents us from having full and equal representation.” 

Before the Constitutionally mandated boundaries of D.C. were set down, the federal government was on tour. The Continental Congress was meeting in Annapolis, Philadelphia, and New York as it debated where to put the government and the federal bank and how to pay off the costs of the Revolutionary War debts—the majority of which Northern states held. The Northern and Southern states were both pushing to have the capital on their side of the Mason-Dixon line. Then Alexander Hamilton used the capital as a “bargaining chip,” as Shuff puts it.

“By getting the capital in the South in two Southern states, Maryland is below the Mason Dixon line, right? It’s not a free state. The South feels like it’s a win, and they gave Hamilton the bank for settling the debts,” he says.

Shuff also says the reason for D.C.’s lack of representation is because Hamilton enacted the oldest political trick in the book: spin. When the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia in 1783, a militia attempted a mutiny in a separate part of the building. They weren’t going after the Congress, but instead were targeting the Pennsylvania legislature in the same building due to pay disputes with the governor. Hamilton took that and ran with it.

“This dude, everybody now knows. Thanks, Lin,” Shuff says, referring to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Broadway show, Hamilton. “[He] told a big whopper of a lie and said that the Pennsylvania militia was there laying siege to the Congress, and there must be a neutral capital where no one would ever control the actions of Congress,” he says. “In order to do that, you need to have a neutral space. And if we wanted to have a neutral space, we needed to set up … its own capital.”

Shuff adds that D.C. also lost representation because of another political move … kicking the can down the road. When Congress was rushing to pass the Organic Act to establish the federal District, Shuff says people losing representation was “an unintended consequence.”

“They sort of left that out of the mix, because it was in the middle of a power struggle between two parties as the party’s presidency was changing,” he says. “There’s even remarks to it and writings on it that ‘we have to solve the representation problem.’ And they kicked it, and then they kicked it, and then they kicked it, and then they kicked it in. And they’ve been kicking it for 200 and some odd years.”

Along the same vein of representation, Shuff explains how D.C. became a hub for a powerful, Black population. He says President Abraham Lincoln emancipated the enslaved people of D.C. two years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

“That’s about two years ahead of time,” he says. “D.C. was the southernmost point where a Black person would be a freed person, and be able to find a job and raise a family … get a space to live.”

Race has played a large role in D.C.’s lack of representation. During reconstruction, Black men were given the right to vote. Faced with the possibility of a bi-racial democracy, White elites pressured Congress to eradicate the local Black suffrage movement by giving up their representation as well.

“There were some people who thought it was wrong for the White people of the District not to have the franchise,” George Derek Musgrove and Chris Myers Asch wrote in a March co-authored report for Statehood Research DC. They’re also the co-authors of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital

“They couldn’t think of a way to get around the 14th and 15th amendments that would re-enfranchise the White residents but not the Black,” they wrote. “The justification for the city losing the franchise, and for maintaining it as a voteless capital of the democracy, was principally about race.”

Shuff says the current conversations of gerrymandering don’t directly relate to D.C., but do raise issues about voting rights nationwide. Issues D.C. residents have been facing for centuries. 

The fight for representation continues. Thanks, Alex.

Bailey Vogt (tips?

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