A FAQ on D.C. Voting Rights, Representation, and Statehood

During my 12 years living in the District, I have heard a lot of questions about, and uninformed arguments against, D.C. congressional representation and/or statehood. But I had never been able to find a single list of those questions or criticisms with reasonable answers. I did a bit of research and put together this Q & A. If you like it, please feel free to distribute it however you wish. (You need not put my name on it.) Thank you!

What is the issue?

Residents of the District of Columbia do not have representation in the Senate or House. Even though D.C. residents pay the highest overall rate of federal income taxes in the nation, and even though more people live in D.C. than in Vermont or Wyoming, and even though more than 200,000 have fought in America’s wars and 5,000 never came home, they have no voice in the federal legislature. D.C. does have a delegate to the House who has limited rights in committees, but no guaranteed vote on legislation. In the Senate, D.C. has no representation at all.


Why don’t D.C. residents have federal representation?

In the years after American independence, several cities including New York and Philadelphia were considered as a permanent capital city. Had one of these been chosen, people who lived there would have federal representation. Ultimately, a deal between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson led to the constitutional mandate to create a federal district that would be part of no state where the capital city would be placed. It was left to President George Washington to choose the site of this “District of Columbia”, a 10 mile by 10 mile square that incorporated land that had been part of Maryland and Virginia.


So the lack of federal representation was intended by the Constitution?

Not really. The site Washington selected included the city of Georgetown, Maryland, as well as part of the city of Alexandria, Virginia. At the time, the drafters of the Constitution simply did not consider the representation anomaly that the creation of the federal District left. After all, the new lines incorporated existing towns, and there had been no talk of disenfranchising residents of other cities that might have been selected as the capital city. The error was noticed early on -- both Hamilton and James Madison quickly said the Constitution should be amended to give D.C. residents representation.


But still, the Constitution is the Constitution.

Yes, and it can and has been changed to correct mistakes. The Constitution used to permit owning other people, for instance.


Do D.C. residents have other voting rights?

Yes, but of a limited capacity, and only at the whim of Congress. Mayors were often either directly elected or elected by a city council in the city’s early years, but in 1874, Congress took over and created a board of commissioners. But in reality, the power in the city was held by the Senate and House committees on D.C. affairs, which were ruled by segregationists up until the 1970s. D.C. became a heavily African-American city in the years leading up to and after the Civil War -- in the 1970s, the city was 70% black -- and many saw the continued denial of representation and even direct election of a local government as a civil rights issue.

D.C. was granted three electoral votes for president and vice president by constitutional amendment in 1961. In the early 1970s, D.C. residents also got the right to elect a mayor, city council, and board of education. But even these rights were curtailed in the 1990s, when Congress created a control board that essentially had veto power over any local decision. Though the control board has since been abolished, Congress still has to approve any local city budget, and has stepped in to block other decisions passed in local votes.


So this about race?

In part, yes. The fact that the only part of the United States where residents have no representation is also the only part where a majority of the population was black until recently cannot be overlooked. (D.C. now has no racial majority, with large black, white, Latino, and Asian populations.) But it is now more about party. The demographics of the District make it heavily Democratic. In presidential elections, the District has always voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic ticket. D.C.’s non-voting congressional delegate has always been a Democrat, and if the District had full representation, it is almost certain that voters would choose two Democratic senators and one Democratic representative. So Republicans have consistently stood in the way of representation.


Do Republicans hate D.C.?

No. Rather, it’s just cynical politics. If Democrats could find a way to disenfranchise heavily Republican Wyoming -- which has 70,000 fewer people than the District -- some in that party would certainly try to do so. In fact, some Republicans have been vocal supporters of D.C. representation as a matter of fairness. Former vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp was the most outspoken, but others including Bob Dole, Barry Goldwater, and even ex-segregationist Strom Thurmond have supported representation as well. A 2005 poll found that 77% of registered Republicans nationwide thought D.C. residents deserved representation.


But what about Marion Barry?

One argument made recently is that D.C. residents have somehow not “earned” representation because of the re-election of Marion Barry as mayor after his time in prison. But regardless of one’s feelings about Barry, this is a very flawed argument. Boston once re-elected a mayor who was in jail at the time. Four of the last seven governors of Illinois have gone to prison. Forty-nine states voted for Richard Nixon for president at least once, and 24 did three times. (The only places that never did: Massachusetts… and the District of Columbia.) Voters have the right to make whatever choices they like. We do not disenfranchise states or voters because we don’t like who they choose.


Can’t you just move?

Sure. But we shouldn’t have to uproot our lives and careers and families just to secure basic rights as Americans. And though D.C. has a reputation as a city of transients, the proportion of residents who were born in D.C. is the same as the proportion of Floridians born in Florida, and of Arizonans born in Arizona. Plus, the D.C. residents who were born in the District are often among the poorer residents, who would have the hardest time making a move.


How does D.C.’s situation differ from those of U.S. territories?

The biggest difference: Residents of the District of Columbia must pay federal income taxes. Residents of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands do not.


What solutions have been proposed?

Some support full statehood for D.C., which would entail reducing the federal district to the areas of the current District where federal facilities are located. This is the most desired option among residents. Others support a “statehood equivalent” where D.C. would be considered a state for the purposes of representation. This second option would still give Congress considerable say over local affairs, but would still be a major improvement over the status quo.

Another option is retrocession. In the 1840s, the territory of D.C. that had been part of Virginia was returned to that state by Congress, even though that was probably unconstitutional. A retrocession now would return the non-governmental land in D.C. to Maryland, and residents of “Washington, Maryland” would vote for senators and representatives there.


Why should I care?

You should care for the same reason you care about the civil rights of any American. Through a series of historical accidents and the aftermath of the legacy of slavery and racism, 650,000 Americans have no voice in their government. It’s unthinkable -- which why that same 2005 poll found that 82% of Americans thought D.C. residents already had representation. You may not like who your neighbor votes for, but you would not try to stop her or him from voting. We in D.C. are your neighbors, and we deserve the same rights you have.

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