- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

The most compelling and strategically effective remedy for ending the enduring disfranchisement of D.C. residents may be neither statehood nor retrocession of the District to the state of Maryland, but rather the elevation of the District to a new constitutional status, one enjoyed by all other federal districts in the world, and which were, ironically, originally modeled after America's own the District of Columbia.
The political leaders of the federal republics of Australia, India, Venezuela, Mexico and Brazil appear to be light-years ahead of the United States in coming to grips with the systemic disfranchisement of the residents of their own federal districts. While the residents of Canberra, New Delhi, Caracas, Mexico City and Brasilia once denied equal voting rights in their national legislatures are guaranteed full political participation today, only the residents of the District of Columbia, despite 200 years of protest, remain wholly disfranchised. The United States long an ardent champion of democracy and human rights may have something elementary to learn about full political participation and fundamental rights from its democratic neighbors around the globe.
Consider the example of Brazil. The original constitution of the Federal Republic of Brazil, which was adopted in 1889, provided no representation in the national legislature for the residents of its original federal district Rio de Janeiro the country's capital. (In a delicious twist of irony, the U.S. government actually pressured Brazilian President Getulio Vargas to grant full voting representation to the citizens of Rio de Janeiro in 1945.) In 1988, however after the capital was moved to Brasilia in 1960 Brazil recognized the injustice and amended its constitution, granting the residents of its new capital the right to equal representation in both chambers of the national legislature, and treating them like the citizens of the 26 Brazilian states. The new constitution not only granted the residents of the federal district the same legislative powers as the states and municipalities, but also endowed them with the same taxation and revenue powers (and limitations) as the state. Moreover, the federal district was granted budgetary autonomy, and received special payments by virtue of it being the federal seat of government.
If the passage of a constitutional amendment, which granted full political and economic rights to the citizens of Brasilia, successfully remedied an identical historical injustice in Brazil, why wouldn't it succeed for the citizens of Washington? Why not, in fact, campaign for a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would effectively treat D.C. citizens as residents of a state for all constitutional intents and purposes?
In 1997, the District's leadership transferred key state functions to the federal government, as required under then-President Clinton's economic and revitalization plan. Therefore, an application for D.C. statehood by a non-voting delegate would violate the so-called "equal footing" doctrine that requires all states to be admitted to the Union on an equal footing with every other state. An amendment for equal constitutional rights for D.C. residents, however, would violate no such doctrine. The people of the District are free to pursue a constitutional amendment remedy today.
Our amendment, known as an Equal Constitutional Rights Amendment, would guarantee D.C. residents not only full congressional voting rights, but also those same rights, powers, privileges and protections provided to all other U.S. citizens living in the 50 states. In this respect, the amendment would be altogether different from the 1978 Voting Rights Amendment, which failed to win ratification in 1985 and was limited to strictly congressional voting rights. Likewise, it would be distinctly different than the proposal presented recently by American University Professor Jamin Raskin and D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, which also is limited to voting rights. We oppose any constitutional amendment that fails to provide D.C. residents with equal rights.
Significantly, an Equal Constitutional Rights Amendment could be accomplished without the District bearing the high financial burdens of full statehood. And while the federal government could continue to pay for the District's prison system, courts and its Medicaid obligations as it does today, thus ensuring the city's continued fiscal solvency, it would also satisfy the principle imperatives of statehood advocates who rightfully demand legislative and budgetary autonomy as well as full representation in the national legislature, including two U.S. senators and a representative in the House of Representatives based on the size of the population.
In the case of Brasilia, with the national constitution providing for the federal district to be treated as a state, the federal district is strong in both local autonomy and representation in the national congress. Under similar constitutional language, D.C. residents would enjoy implicit, or de facto, statehood under the 28th Amendment.
Moreover, according to recent national polls, 72 percent of Americans believe that District residents should enjoy equal constitutional rights, and of those in favor of equal rights for D.C., 82 percent supported an amendment for equal constitutional rights over either retrocession to Maryland or D.C. statehood.
The beauty of an Equal Constitutional Rights Amendment is that it would remedy the gross injustice of the District's troubling disfranchisement as well as its lack of self-government, while simultaneously and perhaps most importantly respecting the spirit and substance of the District's longstanding commitment to obtaining rights equal for all American citizens.

Timothy D. Cooper is executive director of Democracy First. Charles Wesley Harris is a professor of political science at Howard University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Mark David Richards is a Washington sociologist.

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