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D.C. Voting Rights: Should Local Corruption Be Used To Justify City's Disenfranchisement?

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Harry Thomas Jr. leaves the federal courthouse on Friday.
Harry Thomas Jr. leaves the federal courthouse on Friday.

WASHINGTON -- It's a common argument used in the case against greater voting rights or statehood for the District of Columbia: Why should the residents of the nation's capital be given full and equal voting representation in Congress when its local officials have been shown to be corrupt?

The situation involving D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who resigned last week before pleading guilty to federal charges that he stole more than $350,000 from the city and filed false tax returns, certainly doesn't help the D.C. voting rights cause.

The most recent corruption spectacle is particularly ill-timed. A delegation of D.C. officials will soon be heading to New Hampshire to press the cause of the "Last Colony" before state legislators in Concord, who could pass a resolution calling for greater voting rights for the residents of the nation's capital.

As the Examiner reported this weekend, Councilmember David Catania (I-At-Large) is particularly angry with the current state of affairs in the D.C. government, which, beyond the Thomas drama, involves ongoing federal inquires into allegations of campaign corruption by Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown (D).

"How absurd is it for us, really, to try and make the case across the country for voting rights and statehood -- both are legitimate and well deserved -- when people across this country are treated to a routine diet of the latest shenanigans of this government?" asked Catania, who called for Thomas to resign last summer.

But should D.C.'s local corruption prevent Washingtonians from having equal standing with residents who reside in the 50 states? It's a treacherous argument to make.

Washingtonian editor Garrett Graff got into trouble with D.C. voting rights advocates when he tweeted last June: "Congress might be more willing to give DC more rights if DC elected people who seemed more worthy of power."

Graff expanded on his tweet in an email response to Washington City Paper:

I do think there's a certain disconnect when the D.C. Council and mayor's office complains that Congress treats them like children, when their own behavior seems to indicate that they shouldn't be trusted with more authority... If the mayor and the city council want to prove they're capable of governing D.C. without Congress looking over their shoulder, they should strive to be paragons of good governance. This spring especially, I don't think they've met that standard.

DCist's Martin Austermuhle parsed Graff's argument in greater detail:

Setting aside the snobbery of such a comment, Graff fundamentally misunderstands why Congress gets involved in the District at all. Sure, during the Control Board era, there may have been legitimate concern that the city was going belly up -- but since then, Congress has only ever really stepped into the District's affairs to score cheap political points on hot-button social issues. Medical marijuana, abortion, needle-exchange, gun control -- these are the types of things that Congress wants to legislate for us, not property tax rates, campaign finance laws, open government standards or regulatory schemes. In a recent hearing on the Hill about the D.C. budget, District Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi made a good point -- he couldn't remember when Congress even changed the city's annual spending plans, more than just layer on unwanted social riders.

Additionally, Graff seems to miss the irony in what he says. For the District to govern itself, he opines, we have to be "paragons of good governance." Obviously, no one better to judge that than Congress, right? Or the states? They're doing pretty well these days, huh?

On that last point: There's no current movement to take away the voting rights of Illinois residents for the crimes of Govs. Rod Blagojevich (D) or George Ryan (R).

In December, a blog post by Neighbors United for DC Statehood also detailed the string of state governors who have been convicted of crimes, noting:

So we're not perfect, but that's no reason to deny us the basic rights of a democratic society which is the power to select a government. We can elect a local government but it has limited powers and we have no say in the national government although we pay the highest per capita in federal taxes in the entire country and pay more federal taxes than 17 other states.

The argument against our right to self-governance by saying that we're too unethical is just a bunch of garbage. Yes, we have elected some folks with bad judgment and unethical behaviors but so have folks in the 50 states.

And that's a fact that's hard to dispute.

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