WASHINGTON – Before moving to DC in 2014, Zachary Ferguson rarely thought about the district’s voting rights. Now, he realizes that thousands of Americans do not have voting members in the Senate or House of Representatives. Last August, Ferguson wrote the District of Columbia city council in support of the Local Resident Voting Rights bill. The bill would give noncitizens the right to vote after 30 days of residency.
“I believe in expanding the rights of vote. I think it’s important to have no taxation without representation,” he said. “[DC residents] care about that because we don’t have voting rights in Congress, but I think it’s also true for our neighbors who are Dreamers or green card holders. They work in DC, they contribute and they don’t get a vote in local elections, so I thought they should be allowed to.”
As the Council of the District of Columbia was debating this piece of legislation, many residents urged city council members to hurry. They feared that if Congress flipped to Republican control, Republicans would block these bills.
“That was absolutely a concern of everyone involved because we know how things go and sadly, we were right,” said John Payne, an organizer at Sanctuary DMV.
Republicans won control in the House of Representatives and in February, passed a disapproval resolution to block the bill from becoming a law.
In the District of Columbia’s legislation process, in order to become a law, a bill from the council must also gain approval in Congress during a 30 day review period. If disapproval legislation isn’t passed during that time frame, it automatically becomes law.
According to the council, the voting bill is now an official law. However, the Senate parliamentarian disagrees, and instead said that it actually would not become law until March 14, which gives the Senate a few more days to block it.
This struggle between Congress and the council illustrates what energizes the long-standing desire for the District of Columbia to gain statehood, according to residents, organizers and government officials.
Abel Amene, a local DC organizer, worked for over a year on getting the voting rights bill passed with other organizers. The bill is especially important to him as an immigrant who has a green card and cannot vote.
“We’ve had a lot of movement in recent years towards DC statehood [and] towards being able to govern ourselves,” he said. “I would love it if the people in Congress actually stood by their word and supported us in our efforts to govern ourselves and make these decisions.”
Some representatives have been actively working for years toward statehood, including Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non voting representative for DC, told the Medill News Service that she thinks this bolsters the movement toward statehood.
Norton strongly supports the law and opposes the Republican resolution. In speeches she repeatedly demanded that D.C. should be able to govern itself.
“I say to every member of Congress: Keep your hands off D.C. If you want to legislate for D.C., become a D.C. resident and get elected mayor or councilmember,” she said in February on the floor of the House.
The Revised Criminal Code Act
The Senate is set to vote on the council’s new criminal code act Wednesday. If the Senate decides to pass the disapproval resolution, it goes to President Joe Biden’s desk. However, even though Biden has expressed support for D.C. statehood, his announcement came as a surprise for some Democrats.
During a visit to Capitol Hill, Biden told senators that he would not veto the bill blocking criminal law changes.
On Twitter, Biden wrote, “I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule – but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections – such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” he said. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser, vetoed the District of Columbia’s revised criminal code. At a local party meeting, Bowser explained that she urged members of Congress to vote no, but doesn’t want them to tell the District of Columbia what to do.
“I said to the Congress ‘this is our business and we’ll fix it.’ Not only did I say that, I introduced the amendment that will fix it,” she told attendees at a District of Columbia Democratic party meeting. Bowser also said that while she presented her own set of revisions, the council hasn’t responded.
Early Monday, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelsohn sent a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris telling the Senate he withdrew the revised criminal code from Senate consideration. In the letter, he said that “withdrawal enables the Council to work on the measure in light of Congressional comments, and to re-transmit later.”
“Our position is that the bill is not before Congress anymore,” Chairman Mendelsohn said at a press conference. One of the reasons that he pulled the bill was in the hopes of better explaining what the legislation does.
Although Mendelsohn insists that he has the authority to withdraw the criminal code, the Senate still plans to vote on Wednesday.
Patrice Sulton, executive director of the DC Justice Lab, believes that the criminal code was drafted carefully and shouldn’t be changed based on criticism from outside the district. Sulton served on the Criminal Code Commission, which she said was an incredibly intricate process.
“There were about 4,700 pages of explanation for each change in law and possible change in law and clarification of law,” she said.
Sulton added that after years of input from prosecutors, defense attorneys, academics, and legal scholars, it is very disappointing that the bill may be shot down.
Vida Johnson, a supporter and associate professor of law at Georgetown University thinks it is undemocratic for Republicans to force a vote.
“The mayor and the president and many of the Democrats in Congress claimed that they stand for DC statehood, but then to interfere in this legislation shows that they don’t want the District of Columbia residents to have autonomy in our government,” Johnson said.
For organizers, their fight doesn’t end with congressional review. They are now focused on reviving the statehood movement, in hopes that a future Congress will finally give the district’s residents representation.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea that this is hurting statehood fights. In fact, statehood fights have been dead basically. This has now invigorated it, so I think it’s a great time to fight for statehood and it’s become an even better time,” Abel said.