"It’s time to fully enfranchise our fellow Americans with statehood for Washington, DC."
Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Pamela Cox is vice president of the League of Women Voters of Maine.

This time of year is when leaders quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and celebrate Black History Month with lofty rhetoric, but do their words match their deeds in fighting racial injustice? This Black History Month I’m reminding our senators of the painful legacy of continued disenfranchisement of the residents of Washington, D.C.

More than 700,000 Americans live in D.C., a larger population than Wyoming or Vermont. These Americans pay federal taxes, serve in the military and have every responsibility of citizenship, but they still have no voting representation in the U.S. House or Senate. D.C. also has a plurality Black population. Disenfranchising the residents of D.C. is a long-recognized injustice stemming from pure racial prejudice, but Congress has failed to fix it.

D.C. residents have fought for statehood since 1801. This predates Maine’s statehood in 1820, a result of the Missouri Compromise allowing Missouri to enter the union as a slave state and Maine as a free one.

During Reconstruction, Blacks in D.C. gained the right to vote and exercised this rightful power that comes with suffrage. That didn’t last long. Congress stepped in and replaced D.C.’s government with presidentially appointed commissioners in order to quash this political activity. Then-U.S. Sen. John Tyler Morgan of Alabama stated that once “the negroes came into this district,” it was necessary to “deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being” there.

D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser,  explained in 2020 that the “fight for statehood cannot be separated from the fight for racial justice. It is no coincidence that Washington — affectionately known as Chocolate City — is also the only capital of a democratic nation that denies its residents a vote in the federal legislature. To think these two truths are not related is to be willfully ignorant of our nation’s history.” While Maine’s population is about 2 percent Black, D.C.’s is  nearly 46 percent Black, a higher share than any state.

I hope that race is not the reason any elected officials oppose equality for D.C. residents, but regardless of why they are disenfranchising 700,000 taxpaying Americans. The place with the highest share of Black residents is the only one in the U.S. that pays federal income taxes and lacks voting representation in Congress.

To right this wrong, bills have been introduced in recent years to make the residential and commercial parts of D.C. the 51st state — Douglass Commonwealth. This change would give residents autonomy and equal rights. The small capital district would remain, including the Capitol, White House, monuments and museums, house the seat of the federal government and remain under the authority of Congress.

The Washington, D.C. Admission Act  passed the U.S. House twice, with support from U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden of Maine. But it has stalled in the U.S. Senate, in part because our senators, Angus King and Susan Collins, have failed to co-sponsor it. Every U.S. senator from New England has  co-sponsored the bill except for ours.

Democracy is a Maine value. Voting is a right that Mainers cherish, as we have one of the highest voter participation rates in the country.

So as King and Collins have marked MLK Day and now Black History Month, let’s urge them to make their actions live up to their words. It’s time to fully enfranchise our fellow Americans with statehood for Washington, D.C.