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Alison Beyea is the executive director of the ACLU of Maine.
Voting is the bedrock of our democracy. We vote for our national representatives, and through them we exert some control over how our federal tax dollars are spent and how our priorities are represented as a state and nation. Yet the 712,000 residents of Washington, D.C., are denied equal voting rights and congressional representation, simply because of where they live.
Congress is considering a bill to grant D.C. statehood and remedy this injustice. It carves out a federal district consisting of federal buildings, the National Mall, the Capitol and the White House. The parts of D.C. where residents live would become a state. While it is small in area, the population of this proposed state is larger than Wyoming and Vermont.
A bill for D.C. statehood passed through the House of Representatives last summer, with Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden voting in favor. The bill has been reintroduced, and is working its way through the House again. The bill will also need to pass in the Senate, and be signed by the president to become law. While our Maine representatives have been supportive, our Maine senators — Angus King and Susan Collins — have been quiet on where they come out on the issue.
D.C. residents’ campaign for statehood implicates serious democratic values, the values that we waged a war for independence about in 1776, the values that we enshrined in our founding documents: fairness, self-determination, democratic participation and justice. Maine has just finished celebrating 200 years of statehood. Now our fellow Americans in D.C. are trying to win their autonomy and equal voting rights through statehood — and they need our support.
The case for D.C. statehood becomes even more clear when people living outside of D.C. understand how much influence Congress exerts over D.C. residents’ lives. In Maine, we take for granted that we can pass our own budget and our own laws. But because D.C. is not a state, residents there cannot pass local laws or a local budget without congressional approval. Congress has repeatedly blocked the will of the people in D.C. — including for LGBTQ+ rights and abortion access — policies that D.C. residents need and support.
The situation is akin to Congress having veto power over Maine’s lawmaking and budget process. What if Congress members who don’t even live in Maine had the ability to veto our hunting and fishing laws? What if members of Congress used us as a pawn to push their partisan agenda, with no regard for what Maine people want? We would find this situation completely unacceptable. Yet this is the situation in Washington, D.C.
For more than 200 years, D.C. residents have been denied voting representation in Congress, while having Congress — a mostly white body of people, some from thousands of miles away — meddling in their autonomy and undermining their political will. Make no mistake, the decision to strip D.C. residents of voting rights and put them under Congress’s thumb was racially motivated. Statehood for D.C. is a serious issue of equity and racial justice.
D.C.’s population is majority Black and Brown, and it has had a robust Black community since before the Civil War. During the 1950s, in fact, D.C. became a majority Black city, and it remains a hub of Black history and Black excellence: The home of Howard University, the home of civil rights hero Charles Hamilton Houston, and the home of U Street, once known as Black Broadway.
In 2016, the overwhelming majority of D.C. residents voted in a referendum in favor of statehood. Now they are taking on the monumental task of winning congressional approval so that they can enjoy the equal voting rights and self-determination all other states enjoy. As Mainers, we believe in the values of independent thinking, self reliance and fairness. As such, we should support D.C. residents’ efforts to gain the same dignity and equal voting rights Mainers have enjoyed for 200 years.