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19 December 2019

US Republicans’ support for voting rights in Hong Kong highlights the party’s hypocrisy in denying voting rights and statehood to the nation’s capital, Sally Tyler writes.

The November 24 Hong Kong elections sent a powerful message. Hong Kong citizens demand democracy. The 71 per cent of Hong Kong voters who turned out, an all-time high, made clear that universal suffrage and the right to participate in representative government are their core demands from Beijing.

US support for democratic strides in Hong Kong is firm. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. Though he had previously been noncommittal about the bill, President Trump signed it into law on November 27, following urging from Republican leaders.

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The bill requires the State Department to conduct an annual review of whether Hong Kong’s ongoing political relationship with Beijing continues to justify its favoured trade status with the US, and gives the President power to invoke targeted sanctions for human rights violations there.

The law’s text states that it is US policy to ‘support the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong.’ But is it US policy to support the democratic aspirations of those in Congress’ own backyard?

Many people, including many Americans, are surprised to learn that US citizens who reside in the District of Columbia (DC) are denied the form of representative government that the rest of the nation enjoys.

The District is not considered a state, and is only represented in Congress by a non-voting delegate and by no Senators. Thus, the nearly 700,000 individuals who reside in the nation’s capital are shut out from many of the most pressing policy decisions affecting them.

This is despite paying one of the highest federal per capita tax rates in the nation, giving rise to the official slogan on the license plates of District residents: ‘Taxation Without Representation’.

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On 26 November, mere days after the heralded Hong Kong election results, a federal case, Castanon v. United States, was argued in DC to little notice. Its plaintiffs assert that the right to vote for legislative representation is a fundamental right, that DC residents have been harmed by their lack of voting representation, and that their circumstances are a denial of equal protection and due process.

This judicial quest for voting rights has been accompanied by a legislative push for DC statehood. The DC Admission Act has 224 co-sponsors in the House, all Democrats. Indeed, the debate for DC statehood falls along strict partisan lines, with Republicans loath to support a measure which would assuredly deliver additional Democratic votes in Congress.

Over the years, Republican majorities in Congress have overruled policy efforts by DC’s District Council. For instance, when the District tried to use its own funds to pay for abortion services for low-income women, establish a needle exchange program, and legalise marijuana.

In one of the more cynical manoeuvres in recent congressional history, Republicans announced in 2009 that they would back DC statehood legislation, but then amended the bill to prohibit gun control in the District, a sacrosanct issue for DC residents and local lawmakers which they knew would constitute a poison pill for Democrats in Congress.

Beyond the stark dimensions of partisan divide, there is a reality even uglier than simple hypocrisy to this denial of voting rights. Some 46 per cent of District residents are black, and many analysts have clearly demonstrated the racist roots of this attempt to suppress African-American political participation.

Nationally respected advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters, filed amicus briefs in support of Castanon. In September, DC statehood legislation was given its first Congressional committee hearing in more than 25 years. A dogged voting rights movement has launched a pen pal initiative to link DC residents with citizens in states around the nation, designed to educate them about the lack of representation in the District and urge them to lobby their own members of Congress to vote for DC statehood.

While other countries with federal systems like the US may see the wisdom in carving out a separate federal district, they have also recognised the importance of representative government for residents of those districts.

In the Asia Pacific region alone, Australia, India, Malaysia, and Pakistan all elect voting members to their national assemblies from their capital territories. It’s time for US Republican leaders to champion democracy at home the same as their expectations for others around the world.

Perhaps the bold actions of the people of Hong Kong in pursuit of democracy will inspire activists in the US. Before long, we may even see a similar motto: ‘Liberate DC, the revolution of our times.’

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