A Historic Vote
On June 26, 2020, the House of Representatives approved a bill to make Washington, D.C. the 51st state of the United States. Sponsored by D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act would admit Washington, Douglass Commonwealth as the 51st state. It would include most of the current land of the District of Columbia, excluding federal land and buildings such as the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Supreme Court. Residents would be able to vote for one Representative and two Senators, granting the approximately 705,000 residents voting representation in Congress.
Congress hasn’t voted on D.C. statehood since 1993, and this is the first time it has passed in the House. But these historic advancements may only go so far, as the bill is likely to face barriers in the Senate, enforced by partisan politics. This renewed debate over statehood, emphasized by the deployment of federal law enforcement in response to protests in the capital, brings to light the decades-long argument over whether D.C. should have voting representation in Congress. Despite claims that the Founding Fathers did not want the capital to become a state, residents have been continually disenfranchised by racist and partisan politics, and thus statehood is necessary to grant the voting rights and representation residents deserve.
Why Is D.C. Not A State?
The Framers of the Constitution held concerns about the U.S. capital becoming a state. As James Madison emphasized in Federalist 43, leaders of the federal government believed that if it were to become a state, residents would “interrupt” or disproportionately influence federal government proceedings. The Founding Fathers did not want a state with too much power or for the capital to depend on that state. Because of these concerns, they wrote in the Constitution in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 that, “The Congress shall have Power To . . . exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may . . . become the Seat of the Government of the United States”. But constitutional barriers are only one obstacle.
Racism also plays a part in preventing statehood. In the early nineteenth century, D.C.’s government model allowed residents to vote for local leaders, such as mayor, but not for president or voting members of Congress. But when Black men gained the right to vote in local elections, white leaders were reluctant to see Black residents holding positions in local government. In response, Congress passed laws in 1871 and 1874 that gave the president the ability to appoint D.C. leaders, preventing Black political power and further disenfranchising Black residents who were approximately one third of the District’s population at the time.
They gained some advancements for voting rights during the Civil Rights Era. In 1961, the 23rd Amendment gave residents the right to vote in the presidential election and provided D.C. with three Electoral College votes. In 1971, the District gained a non-voting delegate to the House. The Home Rule Act, which is still in effect today, was passed in 1973 and allows elections for a mayor and a 13-member council. But this act still gives the federal government power to review D.C. laws and control the District’s budget. Although residents can elect some officials and pay federal taxes, the United States continues to prevent citizens of its own capital, many whom identify as Black, control over their local legislation and budget. Congress should recognize how denying representation has racist roots and must realize that statehood is necessary.
The Politics of D.C. Statehood in 2020
The voting breakdown of the 2020 statehood bill fell mostly along party lines, 232-180, with most Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposing it. No Republicans are co-sponsoring the bill. Statehood is a political issue because over 50% of the District identifies as Democrat. If D.C. became a state, the Senators and Representative elected would most likely be Democrat. Thus, the battle between preventing and gaining more Democrat seats in Congress presents political obstacles.
To pass in the Senate, the bill would need 60 votes. Since there is a current Republican majority that is likely to continue through the next election, Republicans could filibuster this bill. A filibuster occurs when a member debates a piece of legislation in order to delay or block legislative action and can only be ended by cloture, which requires a vote of 60 members for legislation and a vote of 51 for confirming presidential nominees. Because of the cloture voting requirement for legislation, Republicans could block the vote on this bill. Organizations and statehood activists have challenged the traditional 60 member vote for legislation, arguing that the Senate should use the simple majority cloture usually reserved for confirming presidential nominees. They suggest that filibuster is intended to debate and amend legislation, and statehood requires less debate over small details. Similar to confirming a nominee, this bill should require a 51 vote cloture because statehood is more of a “yes” or “no” decision.
But the obstacles do not stop in the Senate. Some predict that even if it were to pass, Republicans may ask the Supreme Court to strike down the law. The 23rd Amendment that has empowered the District by providing three Electoral College votes may simultaneously propel further disenfranchisement. There are concerns the Supreme Court could strike down statehood by citing this Amendment, because if the federal capital were reduced to only encompass a small area of land, those three electoral votes would make the capital disproportionately influential and conflict with a new state’s electoral votes. A possible solution to this constitutional issue is repealing the 23rd Amendment and ratifying a new Amendment, but that requires the new Amendment to be proposed by two thirds of the House and Senate or through a constitutional convention by two thirds of the state legislatures. Then, three-fourths of the states must ratify it. This makes repealing and adding an Amendment a rare, but not impossible, process. But the battles of partisan politics should not deny voting representation in Congress for residents who meet all the obligations of U.S. citizenship.
Why D.C. Should Become A State
D.C. has the qualifications to become a state. Their population of approximately 705,000 residents is larger than states such as Wyoming and Vermont. They also pay some of the highest per-capita federal income taxes in the nation. Though the Constitution prevents the capital from becoming a state, it only sets a maximum boundary “not exceeding ten miles square”. As a result, the land of the current federal capital can be reduced constitutionally.
Specifically, this year has highlighted the extreme influence the federal government can have in the District. In response to the recent protests against police brutality and racism, President Trump deployed federal law enforcement and National Guard troops at the capital. Mayor Muriel Bowser asked Trump to, “withdraw all extraordinary federal law enforcement and military presence” while stressing that the protests have been peaceful. The federal government can be more involved in D.C. law enforcement because there is no governor, and the mayor has no control over the D.C. National Guard. This response has reinforced the argument for statehood because it displays how D.C. is more subject to the federal government, unlike a state.
The Future Of Statehood
While it is improbable that D.C. will become a state soon, the recent House vote suggests that the argument for statehood is gaining traction with federal leaders. Statehood is necessary not only because residents pay federal taxes and their large population deserves voting representation, but also because the president’s response to recent protests has emphasized how the federal government has disproportionate authority over the District.