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What is Virtual Representation?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 17, 2024
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Virtual representation is the concept by which a group of people are theoretically spoken for in a government body. Essentially, the idea involves using representatives from other locations to legislate for the constituency of a particular region. Throughout history, this concept has been used to leverage influence over controlled territories and vassal countries. Rather than providing the populace with legitimate legislative or executive authority, the controlling power will decide what it deems as appropriate. Generally, this leads to the abuse of leadership rather than the ruling body doing what is in the best interest of the subjugated population.

Over the course of the world's history, virtual representation has been used to make decisions for population groups in various countries and governments on both a domestic and foreign platform. Certain segments of society have often been spoken for, but failed to actually have representatives elected or appointed by them. A prime example of this is the female population of many countries. Leadership often claims to do what is appropriate for women, even though these women have no right to choose their leaders. One such country is Saudi Arabia, which does not provide suffrage for women.

The concept of virtual representation can often lead to rebellion or conflict from the affected population group. One of the most famous examples of this occurred in the late 1700s when the 13 American colonies were denied representation in British Parliament. When the colonists coined the phrase “no taxation without representation,” the British responded with passage of the Declaratory Act in 1766, legislation that stated the actions of the Parliament were indeed virtual representation and legally binding. This disparity among the population helped lead to the American Revolution.

Britain was not alone when it came to using the concept of virtual representation during the heyday of its empire. Nearly every major power at one time or another has used the concept to create laws and mandates that impact its controlled territories and populations. Spain was notorious for the practice throughout Latin America when it controlled much of the Southwestern Hemisphere, a fact that eventually led to revolution throughout the region. The Soviet Union also practiced virtual representation during the height of its power, limiting the activity of party members from outlying areas.

Today, the United States itself faces criticism from many fronts regarding its practice of virtual representation amongst its own territories. While areas such as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have delegates that are appointed to Congress, these members of the legislative body do not have the right to vote on issues that impact the country. This is despite the fact that the constituency of the territories have many of the responsibilities of American citizens, such as paying federal taxes. The District of Columbia has even instituted car license plates that read “Taxation Without Representation” as a form of protest.

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Discussion Comments
By bear78 — On Oct 16, 2014

Virtual representation is basically a fancy term but it means nothing. It's equivalent to "no representation."

I guess someone who thought he was cunning came up with the term to confuse and fool people for a while. But people come to understand eventually that they actually have no say in decision making whatsoever.

I'm waiting for the women in Saudia Arabia to revolt against the Saudi Arabian government. It might be a tough battle though. Forget voting, women can't even go outside alone or drive there. When we live in an era where women can even go to space and rule a country, it's sad that women in some countries don't even have basic rights like voting, or going to school or selecting their life partner. It's sad.

By fBoyle — On Oct 16, 2014

@turquoise-- As far as I know, DC residents can vote in the federal election (for president) and they can vote for a mayor. They just can't elect members in Congress. I believe there is a "virtual" senator for DC but he can't vote. So yes, DC has virtual representation in Congress.

I guess it's because DC is a city and not a state. So I don't think that the government is trying to abuse its rights or oppress DC residents. It just has to do with geography and rules about electing representatives. How can DC residents elect representatives when DC is not a state?

By turquoise — On Oct 15, 2014

What is the idea behind the District of Columbia not being able to vote? I've never understood this. So DC is virtually represented?

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