The Fight for D.C. Statehood
When activists talk about long-term solutions to voter suppression in America, D.C. statehood is often one of the first things out of their mouths. If you’re from the District, you likely think of statehood every time you vote, or read about Congress, or remember that you don’t have a say in a landmark piece of legislation on the front page of the newspaper. Statehood for D.C. is a pressing voting and civil rights issue—and it’s picking up momentum with the new Democratic majority.
Why does D.C. want statehood?
The District of Columbia might be best known as the home of the federal government. But it is also a bustling city, the 20th-largest in the United States, with over 700,000 residents and lives that go on even while Congress is in recess. Before 1961, residents could not vote for President and had no representation in Congress until 10 years later, when they were granted a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House. However, Washingtonians still pay federal taxes—the most per-capita in the nation—and if they chose to simply move a few miles across the Maryland or Virginia state line, as many who commute into the city do, they would have full voting representation in Congress.
So why does the District have this special status? It goes back to the Constitution, which dictates that an area along the Potomac no more than 10 by 10 miles would become “the Seat of the Government of the United States.” But the Constitution did not remove the voting rights of residents of this patch of land—that came in 1800, when Congress moved into the Capitol building and the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 rescinded residents’ right to vote in all federal elections. The same act gave Congress control over D.C. governmental affairs, which still remains in place to this day—including veto power over D.C. budgets, and the power to dissolve the city’s democratically-elected government.
The day-to-day impacts of this federal control are not minor. Congress can steamroll the results of D.C. elections and referendums in shocking ways that would have small-government conservatives shouting from the rooftops about federal encroachment on local government if it happened anywhere else.
Statehood would provide the residents of D.C. with voting representation in the government that their tax dollars contribute to, whose shutdowns they suffer through, and whose motorcades disrupt their morning commutes. It would provide 700,000 Americans with their guaranteed right to members of Congress, to two Senators, and to full control over their own city’s budget and administration. And for Democrats, statehood is an opportunity to grant two new Senate seats to a population that voted over 90% for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the last two elections.
How can statehood be achieved?
Thanks to the clear partisan alliance of the city, which is one of the most overwhelmingly Democratic jurisdictions in the country, Republicans stand firmly against statehood. But with a Democratic House, Senate and Presidency, statehood advocates are hopeful that there’s a chance to make history this term. President Biden, along with every other 2020 Democratic candidate for President, supports statehood, and the House passed a statehood bill in 2019 that it would likely pass again. The Senate would need 60 votes, however, to pass the legislation, which is unlikely to happen. D.C. Statehood, like many other proposed Democratic policies in 2021, rests on the fate of the filibuster.
The District’s non-voting Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton has proposed a bill every year since 1991 that would give residents the right to vote without interfering with the Constitutional directive that a non-voting “seat of government” exist. The streets of the city are split along lines complex to outsiders and simple to residents: D.C. land and federal land. Across a particular sidewalk you may be subject to different laws, and this complication is enough of a roadblock to make those uninvested in the fight for representation throw up their hands and decry the whole statehood effort too difficult to parse. But it is really very simple, just like the lines dividing Maryland and Virginia are simple, or any other distinction of territory in this vast nation that may have once seemed arbitrary but now is just how we live.
Rep. Norton’s bill, H.R. 51, would use these existing lines to carve out a new federal enclave—one much smaller than the entire district, but that houses Congress, the Capitol, and other key downtown federal buildings and excludes the majority of residential areas in the city. The Constitution only says this seat of government cannot exceed 100 square miles—shrinking it would not go against this requirement. H.R. 51 would then grant statehood to the rest of the city’s land and residents, enfranchising hundreds of thousands of Americans for the first time in over 200 years.
What does statehood mean for voting rights?
If you subscribe to the belief that increased access to the ballot box makes for a more democratic government, then D.C. statehood should be a no-brainer. The 623,000 residents of Vermont currently have three more representatives in Congress than the more populous capital city, as does Wyoming and, if trends continue, Alaska and North Dakota. D.C. would also become the state with the largest proportion of Black residents at 47%—making statehood a pressing civil rights and racial justice issue, as well. As the late Rep. John Lewis, a supporter of statehood since it was first proposed in Congress 30 years ago, said, “It is not right that there is still an America where there is still some taxation without representation.”
D.C. statehood would return self-governance to more than 700,000 Americans and give them proportional representation in Congress. It would help right the partisan skew of a Senate where the Democrats consistently suffer from severe malapportionment of seats. And it would save our capital city from being subjected to the whims of congressional representatives from far-off states who assert their conservative policies over the will of the District’s voters. Statehood is a crucial battle on the path to full, fair and equitable voting rights in America—and with Democrats in power, it may happen sooner than expected.
Democracy Explained is our new series that breaks down the biggest challenges and opportunities facing voting rights. Follow the series to learn where we have a chance to expand access to the ballot—and where it must be urgently defended.