Why Don’t D.C. Residents Count?
S1: The last time I went to vote it took two hours. I stood in a line that snaked around a school gym and I watched as one by one each and every ballot scanner in the building broke.
S2: Eventually I shoved my own ballot in an emergency box and hoped for the best. As I left I couldn’t help but wonder Did my vote count. I think this is a question a lot of people are asking themselves right now. As we stared out another presidential election who counts for some people this is a question about whether you can get to the polls at all. And what happens when you do.
S3: For others this question. It’s about a fundamental lack of representation that’s built in has been for years.
S1: As someone who lives in DC. Do you feel like you count.
S4: Honestly no. I’m one of those people who moved to D.C. and felt like I lost my voice.
S1: Christina Ricci is a writer for Slate and for her like me this idea of counting it’s personal. She moved to D.C. for college which is when she realized because of where she lived she had no senator no vote in Congress.
S5: That made me so angry. It felt like such a profound violation to have Congress who you know we don’t even have a voting member of Congress to have them tell D.C. you know you can’t govern your own city in the way that you see fit like were subject to all of the same things that everyone else in America is. But we don’t have an ability to even advocate for ourselves on the federal level.
S1: This is a longstanding gripe in the district. The city even designed their license plate to say taxation without representation as if it was the town motto. I mean it’s funny because ice I grew up in Maryland I saw those license plates. It always seemed like a subtle troll.
S6: Yeah definitely.
S1: It’s kind of funny but it sounds like for you the funny like it’s not even funny anymore.
S5: No it definitely. You know the longer I’ve lived here the less funny it seemed because I see the effects of our disenfranchisement every day in terms of disease and ability to make its own decisions for itself.
S1: DC has more residents than Vermont or Wyoming. It just hasn’t mattered for a long time.
S5: To me it felt like an like an unchangeable fact. I didn’t know the full history of people fighting for statehood. There was no like mass movement getting traction in Congress. So I just kind of accepted it.
S2: Today on the show Christine is going to talk to someone who does know that history deeply about why the fight for statehood has been such a slog and why despite that he’s got hope that Washington’s 700000 residents might count soon. By the way this episode is part of a whole new initiative here at Slate an effort to tally up who counts in the run up to the 2020 election. After you listen to the show I’m going to tell you how you can be part of it. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.
S1: Before I turn the show over to Christina I just wanna make a quick note about who she’s speaking with about D.C. statehood. He’s a guy named Wade Henderson. For years he was a lobbyist for the NAACP. He lives in Washington and he’s seen how the question of who counts is deeply tied up with the question of who we value because we value that’s about identity especially race.
S5: You know I had read that John Lewis the civil rights leader had once said Wade Henderson is who he leans on when civil rights comes up in Congress.
S7: You can’t really get a better endorsement than that. So
S5: the reason why I really wanted to talk to Wade was I was watching the congressional hearing on D.C. statehood a couple weeks ago. It was a big deal. It was the first hearing since 1993 and it became clear to me that the arguments that the opponents of D.C. statehood were using were basically the same ones that they were using back in 1993. A lot of them were sort of grounded in this sort of idea that D.C. this historically black majority people of color city was not fit to govern itself. And I wanted to talk to somebody who could help me understand that understand the sort of racial justice argument for D.C. voting rights and also the underpinnings of the the racist nature of D.C. is disenfranchisement which goes way back.
S1: I’m going to let Cristina take it from here.
S8: Wade Henderson has had his hand in all manner of sticky civil rights legislation. He’s used to working on problems that seem intractable. But this fight is one he’s been fighting for decades and it seems like it’s just not moving. You know I’m especially proud to be able to say I’ve had a chance to work.
S9: And help change the circumstances that were most offensive to me most in need of changing within that context.
S10: The failure to get a vote for D.C. residents has been my greatest disappointment because it’s a black eye to American democracy to know that we in the nation’s capital do all that we do.
S9: Complying with the responsibilities of citizenship you know. Going to war paying taxes we’re larger than many other states and yet we are denied the most fundamental rights and so we have our men and women you know advancing human rights in Kabul Afghanistan and in Beirut and other parts of the world and dying for that that right and yet failing to have it at home.
S4: Was there a moment when you realized for the first time that you had no vote for a representative in Congress or in the Senate.
S9: It wasn’t until D.C. got home rule a version of Home Rule where we had an appointed and subsequently an elected mayor and then a delegate to the House of Representatives but without a vote. And it became readily apparent that we were different than other parts of the country.
S8: When Wade says Home Rule he’s talking about Deasy’s ability to govern itself with a mayor and a City Council which the district didn’t even have until 1973. Even now Congress can still block at any local bill the council passes. So back then how prevalent were these conversations in your community was it was D.C. voting rights. Talked about a lot.
S9: Not really because the history of Washington had always been that without the right to vote. And so people who were here particularly in the African-American community were often migrants from the Deep South. And the fact that they came to a place that was more hospitable than the place they left was really something that was more the focus of their attention. It wasn’t really until voting rights became such a national concern that Deasy’s lack of a voice in Congress and beyond really became readily apparent. It was in 1963 when I went to the March on Washington as a 15 year old that I began to realize the enormous power of collective action but also the fact that we did not have the rights that we should have. Then you had the heady experience of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the Voting Rights Act of 65.
S11: You had Washington as a stage for national social change you had Dr. King coming to Washington frequently and the efforts of focusing on poverty all of that taking place. You then had of course his assassination and you had the pent up frustration that was expressed in the riots.
S9: So when Congress began intervening in the rights of D.C. residents to make decisions of their own and that’s when it became really a Aaron I think that our circumstance and our status had to change. So you know I’d say from certainly the late 1960s onward statehood D.C. residents having a full measure of citizenship became how it was woven into the local political scene and that to me was a very important change and it helped to explain where we are today.
S12: Last month D.C. is non-voting delegate to Congress Eleanor Holmes Norton led a congressional hearing on D.C. statehood.
S13: I want to welcome everyone to this historic hearing on H.R. 51 legislation that would make Washington D.C. our nation’s 50 First State.
S8: The hearing was a pretty big deal. This was the first time D.C. statehood had come up in the House since 1993 and the people who were there arguing against statehood mostly congressional Republicans plus Roger Pilon from the Cato Institute. They threw every argument they could think of at this bill high brow low brow. They tried everything they said the Constitution doesn’t allow Congress to make D.C. a state. They worried about their staffers having to appeal to the state of D.C. for affordable parking near the Capitol. They also did a lot of trash talking saying D.C. hadn’t proven itself worthy of statehood because of its crime rates corruption and school testing scores.
S10: The arguments are consistent and have been over the years. So when you talk about statehood it really allows critics of that structure to attack the nation’s capital. And at the hearing some of the questions from Republican opponents are focused on political problems of some of Deasy’s local leaders and they cited examples of prior mayors and city council members who had engaged in you know was perceived to be skullduggery while in office and they use that to justify not granting statehood to the district. And of course in every one of the states in which they live there are ample examples of exactly this problem so that can’t be an issue in truth. And I think they focus on the fact that D.C. has such a small population.
S5: Know Vermont and Wyoming I think are smaller than D.C..
S9: I mean it’s just outrageous. So you know to have that argument made is is troubling. And then you can’t manage your own finances.
S5: Do you see that sort of legacy of racism that you talked about reflected in some of those arguments that you just cited you know D.C. has for most of its history been a majority black city. Now it’s I think plurality black still majority minority.
S4: But at the congressional hearing last week there was the guy from the Cato Institute a libertarian an opponent of statehood saying this is not about race.
S8: It may be about partisanship. Some of it but it’s not about race.
S14: You allege that this is all about race and partisanship I grant there are partisan elements to that. This is not about race. I urge you I request that you withdraw that charge.
S6: It’s never claiming a way through claiming my time. So you’re laughing. I’m laughing. What do you say that.
S9: Well only because I think Americans have an extremely difficult time confronting the issue of race and its meaning for American democracy. There’s a racial dynamic to this denial of voting rights which can’t be denied. It’s it’s deeply troubling. It’s been in existence since D.C. itself was formed because you had so many. African-Americans who came here either in service as enslaved persons or who sought freedom here. Nonetheless we’ve always had a pretty substantial African-American population. And all I will say is that while attitudes over the years have changed. Nonetheless the notion of admitting a state into the becoming the fifty first state.
S10: Has a number of implications which I think the political establishment has had an incredibly difficult time dealing with. You know this stuff is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Look we are in a system where our rights have to be measured by a single yardstick and we are no less citizens of this country than citizens in your state whether it’s West Virginia or Alaska or Vermont or Montana. And we pay the same price and responsibility of citizens all across the country. We will not be denied that right.
S15: And the argument the power the moral power of that argument rests with us.
S10: So you know we have to be prepared to use it.
S8: DC came really close to getting a vote in the House back in 2009. There was a bill that passed the Senate that would have given one voting representative each to D.C. and Utah which was just about due for another seat according to the recent census Democrats liked it because D.C. would get some voting rights and Republicans liked it because they’d be getting another seat too. But the bill stalled out in the house.
S10: There were some. To be fair in the statehood community there were angry at that proposal because they felt that it would undercut the effort to get statehood and thus to senators as well as a member of the house. My view is that by confirming our right to a voting member of the house you have confirmed our right to the entirety of the package that once you have accepted that change the grant of voting rights in the Senate is inevitable. It will take pressure. There’s no question about it. But DC You know we lost the opportunity and it was unique to Utah I will never come again in quite that way.
S4: So is this what you’re talking about when you say your biggest regret is failing to secure that vote in Congress because you know in hindsight it seems like it would have made sense.
S10: My biggest disappointment. I mean again not everybody shares that view but my own sense is that these changes are often secured incrementally and that you have to be prepared to advance an agenda.
S4: I know more than half I believe it’s 64 percent of the American public when it comes to polling currently opposes statehood. What do you think those people are misunderstanding about the statehood movement.
S11: Well I think what they see they see is OK why would we want another state. The flag looks so nice as it is.
S10: You know exactly we got 50 what I would say is that when the issue is framed in terms of the vote and in terms of core elements of American democracy American people embrace that. And I think that we have an obligation to we frame the debate in ways that reach the audience we’re trying to influence how you come and tell somebody I want you and I want to become a state you know how is that about and why. You know we like you just as you are. I mean I thought you were a state but you know Kenya not etc. When you say that I need the right to vote just like you have in and that how can you justify my not having it. And yes some you know historic quirk that can’t be justified in today’s in the 21st century. Wouldn’t you agree. And the answer is yes. Generally speaking they would agree. Now they may disagree on the form. You know and they may want to come up with various other proposals to thwart the idea of your being an independent player. But that’s OK. Let’s talk about that.
S11: But right now let’s cross that fundamental line that I have the right to vote and you recognize that and we should work toward that goal.
S5: It’s obviously not going to go to the Senate this time around considering who controls the Senate Mitch McConnell has called it full bore socialism. I can’t imagine Donald Trump would sign the bill even if he got it but does it say anything about the future plausibility of statehood that now I think there’s a record number of co-sponsors. I
S4: was looking at the the last bill for statehood that came up in 1993 I think and not even all the Democrats supported it. Almost half of them voted against D.C. statehood is is their momentum right now and what is it about this political moment that’s that’s given rise to you know even the ability to have a hearing around the issue.
S10: That’s a great question. There is political momentum in support of statehood unlike any we have seen in years past. In part it is because it’s built on the efforts of past years devoted to this question and we’ve seen some progress. Ebb and flow but there is also a sense that look you know the time has come to express our view and to make ourselves known and we now have a couple of things going for us. We have a Democratically controlled House that’s committed to advancing D.C. statehood. You wouldn’t have had the hearing if that were not the case and the likelihood of a floor vote is greater. You now have within the Congress a more diverse leadership that are more committed to this effort. Look at the number of committee chairs who are members of the Congressional Black Caucus based in part on their seniority and on their leadership skill and they’re well respected. So I think that the change in the composition of Congress has been helpful. I think the President Obama two term tenure obviously has also changed the dynamic of elections in Washington. What was previously unthinkable has now become an historic standard against which we measure the current president then and others. I I’ve recognized that this process is not a perfect process but it is the one we have and so I’m determined to use it to the best effect.
S8: The way you talk about it makes it sound like it. There really is sort of a straight line of progress where every push to get D.C. voting rights has gone a little bit further gotten a little bit more support become a little more bold. Is that how you see it.
S10: Well I do see it there where I mean I wouldn’t call it a straight line. I think progress is a sort two steps forward one step back kind of dance. But I do think on balance we have made progress with every hearing with every generation of debate. We have made progress in moving this issue forward so much so that in spite of past disappointments I remain pretty confident that the system of government that we respect love admire ultimately will address this issue of voting rights for D.C. residents and we’ll do the right thing. I’m pretty confident that when Americans are exposed to fact that contradicts their vision of what American democracy is about they respond favorably.
S5: How has your lifelong fight on behalf of D.C. statehood and civil rights changed you as as a Washingtonian.
S9: Well I am a native Washingtonian and a large part of my formative years when I grew up Washington was a segregated Southern city with a rigidly determined racial caste as I got older I recognized in the 1960s that there were political events buffeting the African-American community and they were really in sharp relief here in Washington D.C. because at one level we talked about being the world’s greatest representative democracy and at another level we practice the rigid form of racial segregation that belied all the promises of the American Constitution.
S11: Fighting for change in Washington became sort of second nature because there were no little indignities of racism and racial segregation. That for me was deeply offensive deeply offensive. The newspaper and seeing jobs racially classified jobs or whites jobs for college is recognizing that you were prohibited from using some of the nicer facilities in the community. I mean here’s what I would say it inflamed me and flamed a passion for change and I felt that those indignities High were not just painful and unfair. I was committed to changing them. I ended up going into law school in part because I was inspired to try to use the law as a tool for change. And as I said my one of the things that makes me the most proud. So I got to work on the very issues that and make the change that I hoped would see come from the hit. I that for me is the ultimate passion satisfaction of you know giving a chance to do that. So yeah I think DC and that experience helped shape my career in ways that would not have happened in almost any other place that I grew up. It was unique and I sort of really became aware of the contradiction between you know the city on the Hill that you know President Reagan often talked about and the way life in America operated. Truly you know from my neighborhood I can see the Capitol. And I can see the monument. I’m inspired by the things that make D.C. Great. But at the same time the contradiction between the DC that we long for and the DC that is was you know to me very disturbing.
S16: Yes I understand progress is is not linear and sometimes it’s a deep struggle but around issues of voting rights and democracy I’m pretty optimistic and I think I’m pretty optimistic about D.C. and ultimately having the right to vote for its President Wade Henderson is the former head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
S17: All right. That’s the show slate is going to keep this who counts project going right up until the election. And we want to hear from you. What are the questions you’ve got. When do you feel like you yourself have counted or not. We also need your support to do this work so we can assign more stories travel to overlooked places and bring you more conversations like this one if you want to support what we’re doing or just track the project going over to Slate dot com slash who counts and donate. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Jason De Leon Daniel Hewett and Maurice silvers. I am Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.