Voting Rights and Democracy

Washington D.C.’s Second-Class Status is a Stain on Our Democracy

Congress has the express constitutional power to add new states to our nation by enacting simple legislation, a power it has used repeatedly throughout history.  It should exercise this power to make Washington, D.C. the 51st state, ensuring that Americans living in the District of Columbia have full voting rights, political representation in Congress, and control over their local affairs.   Bills recently introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate provide a vehicle to bring democracy to our nation’s capital.

The denial of full voting rights to the 700,000 people living in Washington D.C. is a shameful blight on our democracy.  Residents of the District of Columbia pay taxes and serve our country in myriad ways, but are locked out of our democratic system of government.  They have no right to vote for U.S. Senators or full-fledged members of the House of Representatives, yet federal lawmakers possess a veto over decisions made by the District’s local government.  As the tragic events of January 6’s Capitol riot illustrate, because of the District’s anomalous status, its chosen leaders cannot seek the assistance of the National Guard to repel assaults by domestic terrorists without the sign-off of the President and Department of Defense.  As the Capitol insurrection shows, the denial of democracy poses a serious threat to national security and personal safety in our nation’s capital.

Throughout our history, Americans have fought to make our democracy more open, inclusive, and just, but Washington D.C. continues to be, as Frederick Douglass long ago lamented, the “one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people, and by the people. Its citizens submit to rulers whom they have had no choice in selecting. They obey laws which they had no voice in making. They have a [sic] plenty of taxation, but no representation.”  There is no good reason to continue treating Washington, D.C. as a democracy-free zone.

No other democratic nation disenfranchises the residents of its capital city.  Our nation does so as part of a long history of racial injustice and exclusion.  During Reconstruction, Congress gave Black men in the District the right to vote.  But as Black political power increased, a white supremacist backlash sought to strip Washington, D.C. of any semblance of democracy.  In 1874, shortly before the violent overthrow of Reconstruction, Congress placed three presidential commissioners in charge of the District, leaving its residents no voice or representation.  Racist southern members of Congress insisted that after “the negroes came into this district,” Congress was right to “deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being” rather than give Black people a say in their affairs.  Despite some limited progress, such as the Twenty-Third Amendment, which granted D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections, D.C.’s shameful exclusion from the basic democratic rights that Americans elsewhere take for granted continues to this day.

Conservative opponents of D.C. statehood defend this state of affairs by dehumanizing the population of our capital city, nearly a majority of whom are Black, insisting that the people of Washington D.C. are not “real people” and would not form a “well-rounded working class state.”  The denial of democracy in Washington D.C., at bottom, is about the refusal of conservative lawmakers to treat Black people as equal citizens deserving of dignity, respect, and a voice in their affairs.

Congress has the power under the Constitution to guarantee full and equal voting rights and representation to residents of Washington D.C. and end this legacy of racial injustice by creating a 51st State encompassing the residential portions of the capital.  The Constitution is clear as can be on this point.  Article IV’s New State Clause explicitly provides that “New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union.”  In fact, every state added to our nation since the Founding has become a state by passage of simple legislation.  Thus, Congress can pass simple legislation to make Washington D.C. into a state.  The higher hurdle of a constitutional amendment is simply not necessary to form a new state, as the Constitution’s text makes abundantly clear.

Despite the text’s clear grant of power to Congress to admit new states, conservatives persist in claiming that a constitutional amendment is necessary to confer statehood on Washington D.C.  Their arguments ignore that the decision to grant statehood is up to Congress.  There is no constitutional barrier to ending the second-class treatment of the many people living in our capital city.

First, opponents argue that D.C. statehood conflicts with the Constitution’s design to create a “District (not exceeding ten Miles square)” to serve as “the Seat of Government of the United States.”  This is wrong.  Congress has the power to create a new 51st state out of the residential parts of Washington D.C, while reducing the size of the “District” that contains the “Seat of Government of the United States,” as the recently introduced D.C. statehood bills do.

The Constitution authorizes Congress to “exercise exclusive legislation” over the District and does not permanently fix the capital’s boundaries.  The Constitution establishes the maximum size of the nation’s seat of government, but contains no other limits.  The Constitution’s text clearly gives Congress the power to alter the size of the seat of government, as it has done before.  Under the Constitution, the decision to create a new state out of what is currently the District of Columbia and shrink the size of the “Seat of Government of the United States” falls squarely within the powers of Congress.

Opponents of D.C. Statehood also claim that the granting Washington D.C. statehood conflicts with the Twenty-Third Amendment, which gives three votes in the electoral college to the “District constituting the seat of government.”  The Twenty-Third Amendment, of course, does not limit Congress’ constitutional authority to make the residential parts of Washington D.C into a state.   It gives three electoral votes to the seat of government regardless of the district’s size.   If Congress made Washington, D.C. into the 51st State, the Twenty-Third Amendment would effectively give the small number of residents who live in federal buildings, such as the President, the power to control those three votes.  For that reason, the statehood bills currently before Congress set up an expedited process for repealing the Twenty-Third Amendment.  But as a constitutional argument against statehood, the Twenty-Third Amendment fails.  The Amendment simply does not constrain Congress’ power to grant statehood.

Our Constitution establishes an inclusive multiracial democracy based on the equal worth and dignity of all Americans.  Denying the people of Washington, D.C. a voice or representation in Congress does violence to these fundamental constitutional principles.  D.C. statehood would be an important step toward addressing our long history of racial injustice and exclusion.  It is long past time to end this shameful stain on our democracy.

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