SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The House today approved a bill that would make the District of Columbia the country's 51st state. But it probably won't become law. D.C.'s unusual status has prompted some residents, even those who've called D.C. home for years, to vote from states outside of the District in an effort to have more of a voice in elections. That may not be exactly legal, as NPR's Barbara Sprunt reports.
BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: D.C. is home to over 700,000 people. That's a bigger population than that of Wyoming and Vermont. But unlike those states, D.C. residents don't have the ability to elect senators or a congressional representative with voting power. That's caused some to keep their voter registration active in the state they lived in before coming to the nation's capital. Katherine Abu Ghazaleh falls into that category. She's registered in Texas.
KATHERINE ABU GHAZALEH: Especially in Dallas, you have a lot more voting power. If I were a D.C. voter, I wouldn't have someone to call to say, vote this way. Right now I can call my congressman when I say, I want you to support this, or I don't want you to support that.
SPRUNT: She says the allure of voting in a purpling state trumps voting in D.C., which overwhelmingly votes Democratic.
ABU GHAZALEH: In D.C., it's most likely going to go blue for the president. If there even a chance of turning Texas blue, I want to be a part of it.
SPRUNT: Kate, a Republican who works in D.C. as a political consultant, also votes in her home state - Tennessee. She asked NPR only to use her first name out of concern she might be skirting voting laws.
KATE: I know what the landscape there looks like a little better than here. The community politics and, like, voting for, like, small, local town stuff, I feel like my opinion is more valid in those politics than in these.
SPRUNT: These kinds of arguments frustrate Robert White, who serves as one of D.C.'s at-large councilmembers.
ROBERT WHITE: I'm always disappointed when the folks who live in D.C. but don't vote here because if you call D.C. home, then you have to join our struggle. If folks want voting representation, then the work they have to do is not maintain voting elsewhere, but to work with us to get the representation that we deserve.
SPRUNT: Rebecca came to D.C. for college seven years ago. She also asked NPR only to use her first name out of potential legal concerns and says sometimes she feels guilty about continuing to vote in Georgia.
REBECCA: I feel a little like I'm kind of rigging the system. I feel like my home is my family home in Georgia. Like, I pay rent in D.C., but I'm just here temporarily. Like, if someone were to question me that legally, like, I don't know what the actual legal definition of a living somewhere is.
SPRUNT: So what is the definition?
DAVID BECKER: It all depends on the residence laws in the state. Most states have a law that says something about either you reside there or you intend to return.
SPRUNT: That's David Becker. He's the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. Intent to return covers people who live in one place but consider their permanent home to be elsewhere, like military families who relocate often, college students and snowbirds. Becker says it can also apply to voters like Rebecca who plan on returning to their home state down the road, so long as they're not voting in two places. But state laws create grey areas, and that makes legal challenges difficult. Becker says while a small percentage of D.C. residents may engage in this practice, it shouldn't be seen as voter fraud, and that actual voter fraud is very rare.
BECKER: The number of people who are going out of their way to try to game the system, risking possibly violating federal or state laws if they truly don't reside in a state and risking the possibility of multiple years in prison and many thousands of dollars in fines for the right to cast one additional ballot in an election in which 150 million might be cast, not a realistic threat to our system.
SPRUNT: The bigger problem with U.S. elections, he says, isn't that some people in D.C. want their vote to mean something. Becker says it's that there are millions of eligible voters who choose not to vote at all.
Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.