Few people, however unfairly, regard Southwest Ohio as a particularly exhilarating place. But every two to four years, just drawing breath there felt like a rush for a kid drawn to politics.
It’s a purplish region of a perennial swing state, which means our often-overlooked corner of the world periodically assumes an outsized importance. This year’s crucial midterm elections are no exception.
For the 23 years I lived there, I found it so thrilling. Voting felt important. So did organizing, and learning whatever you could all year long.
It’s no small irony that the political passion I learned in Ohio led me to Washington, D.C. — which, despite what you might expect, is the most politically marginalized place in the mainland United States. For the better part of a decade I’ve made a living out of engaging the issues, but the thrill of participation has dwindled.
The 700,000 or so taxpaying residents of America’s capital district outnumber the residents of entire states like Wyoming and Vermont, and could soon overtake Alaska. Yet unlike those states, we’re awarded precisely 0 senators and 0 voting House members to represent us in Congress.
Here in the heart of the beast, we enjoy the same congressional representation as U.S. nationals in our far-flung colonial acquisitions — Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Which is to say, virtually none.
Of course, there’s more at stake than whether I or other transplants get to enjoy voting in national elections.
For one thing, your elected representatives often overrule our own. On many occasions, Congress has intervened to overturn democratic decisions made by D.C. voters.
For instance, when 69 percent of D.C. voters voted to legalize medical marijuana years ago, Congress blocked the District from spending its own tax dollars implementing it.
When 65 percent of us voted to legalize recreational use in 2014, some Maryland Republican forbade Washingtonians from setting up storefronts, denying us the full economic boons of legalization and keeping the black market open. To this day, elected D.C. representatives can’t even hold hearings on the issue.
America’s disenfranchised territories share one unmistakable demographic similarity: Most of their residents are people of color. Puerto Ricans are overwhelmingly Latinx, Virgin Islanders mostly black, our Pacific territories Asian and Pacific Islander, and D.C. a diverse blend of black, white, Latinx, and Asian.
Contrast that with the small but overwhelmingly white populations of Wyoming and Vermont, which between them get two House members and four senators.
These imbalances affect all Americans, regardless of your state or race. The ramshackle, undemocratic systems we use to elect our House members, senators, and presidents vastly over-represent small states that are rural, white, and conservative, while under-representing everyone else.
This was the system that let Donald Trump become president despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots.
It was the system that led to a 52-48 Republican Senate majority, even as Democratic Senate candidates running that year got 11 million more votes than Republicans.
And it was the system that let senators representing just 44 percent of Americans confirm Brett Kavanaugh, a judge most Americans opposed, to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.
A system that actually permitted one vote for one person would look radically different. But even absent a genuine popular vote system, some of the imbalances favoring smaller, whiter states could be offset by extending statehood — and real votes in Congress — to the more diverse 4.5 million residents of D.C. and America’s other non-voting territories.
The people who vote — or can’t vote — in Congress shape the country for all of us. That’s as true for my neighbors here in D.C. as it is for my family and friends back in Ohio.