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DC Statehood Explained

Efforts to secure full political representation for the District of Columbia have gained momentum, but obstacles remain.

Published: March 18, 2022

The nearly 700,000 resid­ents of Wash­ing­ton, DC, do not have full voting repres­ent­a­tion in Congress, even though they are Amer­ican citizens, pay federal taxes, and serve in the milit­ary. This lack of polit­ical repres­ent­a­tion for the District of Columbia — which has more people than Vermont and Wyom­ing and histor­ic­ally a large Black popu­la­tion — is one way our polit­ical system disen­fran­chises and under­rep­res­ents voters of color. The federal govern­ment also exer­cises tremend­ous power over the district, without account­ab­il­ity to the resid­ents whose lives are impacted.   

Advoc­ates have long pushed to cure this demo­cratic defi­cit. After years of frus­tra­tion, the move­ment recently reached an import­ant mile­stone. In 2020 and again in 2021, the House passed H.R. 51, the Wash­ing­ton, DC Admis­sion Act. If passed by the Senate and signed into law by the pres­id­ent, it would give voters in our nation’s capital the abil­ity to parti­cip­ate fully in our demo­cracy by admit­ting “Wash­ing­ton, Douglass Common­wealth,” as the 51st state.

What are the origins of DC’s lack of full voting repres­ent­a­tion?

The District Clause, found in Article I of the Consti­tu­tion, empowered Congress to estab­lish a federal capital district “not exceed­ing ten miles square” where it would “exer­cise exclus­ive legis­la­tion in all cases what­so­ever.”

But the Framers made a fate­ful omis­sion: They failed to provide a means for repres­ent­a­tion for the district’s future resid­ents. In the Consti­tu­tion, seats in Congress and votes in the Elect­oral College are all alloc­ated among the states — but the district is not a state.

In its early years, the United States did not have a perman­ent capital, and Congress met in a few differ­ent cities. After Pres­id­ent George Wash­ing­ton chose a loca­tion on the Potomac River for the perman­ent capital, the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 gave Congress exclus­ive juris­dic­tion over the district’s territ­ory, robbing its resid­ents of the voting rights they previ­ously enjoyed as citizens of Mary­land and Virginia.

What is the history of the move­ment for DC state­hood and self-govern­ment?

Over many years, the district’s resid­ents have campaigned to secure the same voting rights enjoyed by citizens of states. These efforts intens­i­fied during the civil rights era, lead­ing to the move­ment’s first success. In 1960 Congress approved the 23rd Amend­ment, which allowed DC citizens to vote in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. The meas­ure was rati­fied by the states in 1961. (An earlier version of the amend­ment, approved only by the Senate, would also have opened to door to voting repres­ent­a­tion in the House.)

Build­ing on this success, reformers turned their sights on two new goals: gain­ing repres­ent­a­tion in Congress and reclaim­ing control over local affairs. The District of Columbia Deleg­ate Act of 1970 allowed DC resid­ents to elect a non-voting deleg­ate to the House. The Home Rule Act of 1973 allowed them to elect their own mayor, as well as a 13-member city coun­cil.

And in 1979, the D.C. Voting Rights Amend­ment, which would have awar­ded DC the same status of a state — repres­ent­a­tion in both the House and the Senate as well as the consti­tu­tional amend­ment process — passed both houses of Congress by the neces­sary two-thirds major­ity. In the end, however, the meas­ure was only rati­fied by 16 states, well short of the 38 needed to take effect.

Today, DC contin­ues to lack a vote in Congress and is deprived of other attrib­utes of state­hood and full control of its own govern­ment.

How has DC’s status affected its resid­ents?

The slogan “End Taxa­tion Without Repres­ent­a­tion,” found on DC license plates, high­lights one of the primary harms caused by the lack of voting repres­ent­a­tion in Congress. DC resid­ents pay more in federal taxes per person than any other state — and more than 22 states in the aggreg­ate.

Congress contin­ues to exer­cise extens­ive author­ity over DC’s budget, retain­ing the right under the Home Rule Act to review and nullify any legis­la­tion passed by the district’s local govern­ment, with import­ant consequences for DC resid­ents. For instance, Congress contin­ues to block the district’s abil­ity to regu­late and tax the market for cannabis, which was legal­ized by DC voters in 2014. Congress for years blocked other import­ant DC policies, includ­ing a needle-exchange public health program and health insur­ance cover­age for domestic part­ner­ships.

Lack­ing voting repres­ent­a­tion in Congress also prevents the district from receiv­ing its fair share of federal resources. When Congress passed a coronavirus relief pack­age in March 2020, the district was short­changed by millions of dollars in federal aid because it was treated as a U.S. territ­ory and not a state.

While the local govern­ment over­sees the DC Metro­pol­itan Police Depart­ment, the DC National Guard reports to the pres­id­ent. This report­ing struc­ture is unlike those of all other National Guards, which report to their state or territ­orial governor. The consequences of this dispar­ity became partic­u­larly stark during protests against police brutal­ity follow­ing the murder of George Floyd: in June 2020, Pres­id­ent Trump deployed DC National Guard troops to suppress a peace­ful Black Lives Matter rally, a move regarded by many DC resid­ents as a “hostile inva­sion.” Months later, amid the delayed law enforce­ment response to the Capitol insur­rec­tion on Janu­ary 6, 2021, help would have likely arrived sooner if DC’s mayor had author­ity over the DC National Guard.

What is the Wash­ing­ton, DC Admis­sion Act?

The bill would turn most of present-day Wash­ing­ton, DC, into a new state called Wash­ing­ton, Douglass Common­wealth. The new state would be on equal foot­ing with the exist­ing 50, with the same level of control over its own affairs and full voting repres­ent­a­tion in Congress, with two senat­ors and one repres­ent­at­ive. A small capital district compris­ing the Capitol complex, White House, National Mall, and other federal grounds would remain under congres­sional author­ity as the seat of the federal govern­ment.

Can Congress admit DC as a state?

Yes. The Consti­tu­tion vests Congress with broad power to admit new states through legis­la­tion under Article IV, subject to two limit­a­tions: states may not be formed from exist­ing states’ territ­ory without their consent and juris­dic­tions seek­ing to join the Union as states must have a repub­lican form of govern­ment. Congress has histor­ic­ally applied two addi­tional criteria when consid­er­ing whether to admit a new state. Peti­tions for state­hood must reflect the desire of the people in that juris­dic­tion, and any new state must have the suffi­cient popu­la­tion and resources to support itself and contrib­ute to the federal govern­ment.

Admit­ting the Douglass Common­wealth as the 51st state through ordin­ary legis­la­tion is not only permiss­ible but also consist­ent with how the other 37 non-original states were admit­ted, from Vermont in 1791 to Hawaii in 1959. The conten­tion that the Wash­ing­ton, DC Admis­sion Act is some­how differ­ent, in process or polit­ical effect, is not true.

Further­more, Congress’s exclus­ive author­ity over the district includes the power to revise its bound­ar­ies under Article I. In 1846, Congress exer­cised this power to modify the district’s original “ten miles square” bound­ary, return­ing land previ­ously ceded by Virginia. Courts have also found that the Consti­tu­tion’s District Clause contains ”sweep­ing and inclus­ive”  language, permit­ting broad leeway for Congress to alter the federal district’s contours.

What are argu­ments made against DC state­hood?

Oppon­ents have raised several argu­ments ques­tion­ing the consti­tu­tion­al­ity of admit­ting the district as a state. Some argue that it requires the consent of Mary­land, the state from which the land was origin­ally gran­ted. This view is contra­dicted by histor­ical docu­ment­a­tion show­ing that when Mary­land ceded the territ­ory, it stip­u­lated that the land was “forever ceded and relin­quished . . . in full and abso­lute right and exclus­ive juris­dic­tion.”

Further­more, some have claimed that the 23rd Amend­ment prohib­its state­hood, because it author­izes Congress to grant elect­oral votes to the district. A group of nearly 40 prom­in­ent consti­tu­tional schol­ars persuas­ively argues other­wise. While it might be appro­pri­ate for Congress to repeal the 23rd Amend­ment once most of DC becomes a state, the amend­ment’s exist­ence in no way precludes admit­ting DC as a new state.

Addi­tion­ally, certain oppon­ents to state­hood claim that since prior efforts to grant the district’s resid­ents full voting repres­ent­a­tion in Congress have some­times taken the form of proposed consti­tu­tional amend­ments, state­hood cannot be achieved through legis­la­tion. Yet there is no histor­ical, consti­tu­tional, or legal basis for this claim. Many move­ments for change, like the fight to elim­in­ate discrim­in­a­tion based on sex and gender through the Equal Rights Amend­ment, initially took the form of failed amend­ments whose protec­tions subsequently became law.

Moreover, a crucial distinc­tion is that where the unsuc­cess­ful 1979 state­hood amend­ment effort reflec­ted Congress’s attempt to give DC resid­ents certain attrib­utes of state­hood (congres­sional repres­ent­a­tion) without actu­ally making DC a state. The fail­ure of this effort does not preclude admit­ting a new state through estab­lished processes provided under the Consti­tu­tion, which is a straight­for­ward legis­lat­ive exer­cise.

Finally, oppon­ents also claim that the district lacks the popu­la­tion and resources neces­sary for a state. Yet its popu­la­tion — over 670,000 as of 2021 — is roughly similar to that of seven states. The district has also demon­strated its abil­ity to handle its own affairs.

What makes DC state­hood a civil rights issue?

If admit­ted, DC would have the highest propor­tion of Black resid­ents of any state. For decades, start­ing in the 1960s, the city had a major­ity Black popu­la­tion, still account­ing for nearly half of its resid­ents.

Disen­fran­chising Black voters has both expli­citly and impli­citly been part of the rationale against efforts to expand voting rights and repres­ent­a­tion through­out Amer­ican history. Indeed, histor­i­ans have docu­mented how the debate over the disen­fran­chise­ment of DC resid­ents has always been tied to the area’s racial demo­graph­ics and Black polit­ical power. The argu­ments of past were often expli­cit — from the 1890s comment of Sen. John Taylor Morgan of Alabama describ­ing the post-Recon­struc­tion removal of local elec­tion rights as Congress “burn[ing] down the barn to get rid of the rats . . . the rats being the negro popu­la­tion,” to the 1970s asser­tion by Pat Buchanan that DC congres­sional repres­ent­a­tion would be an “affirm­at­ive action program.”

The exclu­sion of DC resid­ents from a voice in Congress contrib­utes to the under­rep­res­ent­a­tion of voters of color in the Amer­ican polit­ical system. Accord­ing to a New York Times analysis, based on the voting power of each U.S. senator, the aver­age Black Amer­ican receives “only 75 percent as much repres­ent­a­tion as the aver­age white Amer­ican.”

In fact, much of the oppos­i­tion to DC state­hood is purely partisan and too often echoes outdatedracially based argu­ments.  Indeed, in 1978, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) attrib­uted the resist­ance to grant­ing DC full repres­ent­a­tion to “the fear that Senat­ors elec­ted from the District of Columbia may be too liberal, too urban, too Black or too Demo­cratic.”

What is the outlook for DC state­hood?

State­hood support­ers reached an import­ant mile­stone in June 2020 when the House voted for the first time to admit Douglass Common­wealth as a state, passing H.R. 51 by a vote of 232 to 180. It approved the meas­ure again in April 2021 by the narrower margin of 216 to 208. Both votes fell almost entirely along party lines, garner­ing no Repub­lican support. While the Senate has not taken up the meas­ure, there is signi­fic­ant GOP oppos­i­tion there too — the Senate bill has only Demo­cratic co-spon­sors, and Repub­lican senat­ors criti­cized the bill in a June 2021 commit­tee hear­ing, often in jarringly partisan terms.

There has not always been a partisan split on the issue. The goal of extend­ing voting repres­ent­a­tion to the district earned bipar­tisan support, includ­ing from key Repub­lican lead­ers. In 1968, Pres­id­ent Richard Nixon argued that the lack of a voice in Congress for DC resid­ents “should offend the demo­cratic sense of this nation.” As it became clear that the district’s voters were likely to send Demo­crats to Congress, Repub­lican support began to erode. But as wider voting patterns change, this could shift as it has in other states.

Yet voting rights for DC resid­ents should­n’t depend on who they vote for. DC state­hood is crucial for ensur­ing all eligible Amer­ic­ans the full fran­chise. Along­side other federal-level demo­cratic reforms, it is a neces­sary part of giving every Amer­ican a mean­ing­ful say in the rules that govern their lives.