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Should Washington, DC, Become a State?

May 29, 2019

Washington DC License PlateIf you visit Washington, DC, one of the things you may notice is the license plates on local vehicles.

While the inhabitants of the District of Columbia pay federal taxes, they do not have voting representation in Congress – just one delegate whose votes do not count. So since 2000, after approval by the Mayor and City Council, DC residents have had a choice to use their license plates as a form of protest. “Taxation Without Representation” harkens back to the causes of the Revolutionary War and the principles under which it was fought.

The creation of a federal district was outlined in the Constitution, Article I, Clause 17 which allows Congress “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be…” This allowed Congress to create a federal district over which they had power as it would not be part of a state.

As Washington, DC has grown, so has the frustration of its population. Its citizens were not allowed the right to vote in the Presidential election until the passage of the 23rdAmendment in 1961 which gave the District three Electoral Votes for President. But still, they have no voting representation in Congress.

Activists in Washington, DC are now trying to get the city approved as the 51st state. With a population (estimated at 693,000 in 2017) greater than Vermont or Wyoming, its residents argue that they deserve two Senators and a Representative as much as any states are entitled to them. They argue that the residents pay taxes, serve in the military and contribute to the welfare of the nation as a whole, so they should be entitled to the same rights.

Those who oppose Washington, DC becoming a state explain that there was a reason that the framers of the Constitution did not want the federal district to gain too much power. In Federalist #431, one of the authors of the Constitution and future President James Madison, explained that if the capital were in a state, that state would have too much power as members of Congress would be beholden to it as part-time residents.  However, Madison also writes that while not part of a state, the federal district’s citizens “will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them.” This part of Federalist #43 is used by supporters of DC having representation in Congress to show that it wasn’t the intent for them to be disenfranchised.

In the election of November, 2016, DC voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to make Washington the nation’s 51st state.2 To get around the Constitutional requirement that the federal district be under the control of Congress, the referendum carved out the area of the city with the White House, Congress and many of the federal departments as “federal district.” But the rest of the city would become the state of “New Columbia” with two Senators and a Representative. The referendum passed with over 78% of the vote.3

While she can’t vote on legislation, Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s delegate to the House of Representatives, did introduce a bill, H.R.51, the “Washington D.C. Admission Act” which would admit Washington, minus the federal properties, into the Union as the 51st state. While it is very unlikely it will pass through Congress right now, the groundwork is being laid for the possibility that the State of New Columbia will add its star to the American flag sometime in the future.


Discussion Questions

  1. Is using a license plate an appropriate form of protest? Why or why not?
  2. What are the strongest arguments in support of Washington DC becoming a state?
  3. What are the strongest arguments against Washington DC becoming a state?
  4. Do you support statehood for Washington? Why or why not?
  5. There is an argument that in order for Washington DC to become a state with representation, a Constitutional Amendment would need to be adopted allowing such a change. Do you think the current proposal, to carve out a federal district out of the federal buildings downtown and let the rest of the city become the new state, is allowable or do you believe the Constitution would have to be amended?  How do you support your position?


Featured Image: A sign supporting D.C. statehood on display outside an early voting site in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP)
[1} Madison, James. Federalist #43. (1788) http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed43.asp
[2] Davis, Aaron C, “District voters overwhelmingly approve referendum to make D.C. the 51ststate.” Washinton Post, 8 November 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/district-voters-overwhelmingly-approve-referendum-to-make-dc-the-51st-state/2016/11/08/ff2ca5fe-a213-11e6-8d63-3e0a660f1f04_story.html?utm_term=.4e6629923c72
[3] “Washington, DC Statehood Referendum (November 2016). Ballotopedia. https://ballotpedia.org/Washington_D.C.,_Statehood_Referendum_(November_2016)


11 thoughts on “Should Washington, DC, Become a State?

  1. Any member of Congress or state legislature can propose amendments to the U.S . Constitution. Since 1787, more than 10,000 amendments have been proposed. These proposals range from banning the desecration of the American flag to balancing the federal budget to altering the Electoral College.

  2. Erica’s right, this is well written.

    If I’m wrong on this, someone correct me because I’d like to know, but Representatives wouldn’t be considered citizens of DC because then they wouldn’t be residents of the state they represent, I’d think. So Madison’s argument that congressional representatives would be beholden to the state of New Colombia, while a good point, would be erroneous – they’re not state citizens, they’re visiting for their jobs while they serve their terms, otherwise they’re not really representative of their state’s people, are they? This isn’t about the politicians, it’s about the average person who lives in DC. Those are the people who are asking for the same rights as every other US citizen, and they don’t have them right now.

    solution: they’re not DC citizens. Their votes don’t count for local things because they can vote in their state.

    alternate solution: dual citizenship or special status as political visitors or something.

    1. That is true about the state of residence of representatives–they maintain their residency in their home states. Thanks for engaging in the discussion, and for adding a new idea to the mix.

  3. Just give DC back to Maryland, where the land came from to begin with. Then residents of Washington, DC will have representatives in Congress–the same as everyone else in Maryland.

    1. That is certainly one idea; like all other proposals, it does have its drawbacks. Thanks for engaging!

  4. From a practical perspective, an even more carved out city state, dependent on federal employment as it’s industry, would be a risky proposition. Some upside but what this actually means needs to be far better understood. For example, the shrinking / relocation of the federal workforce needs to be fully understood – old assumptions are in need of update. Practical day in the life scenarios need to be detailed / understood. At this point, a large number of unknowns / one offs. This is very far beyond self governance / 2 senators / congress person points.

    Diligence related to being MD retroceded should include verifying if this is in fact legal. Important to note that the same retrocede was done about 1820 – large portions of DC back to VA. The constitutionality of that action remains to be legally resolved! A retrocede action to MD would also validate or invalidate the original VA retrocede (perhaps illegal) action. The MD retrocede legal action, could (incredibly) also cause those areas in VA across from the Potomac to again be part of the original constitutionally ceded DC area or perhaps achieve some type of very large $ restitution. At that point, we might have critical mass / enough information to consider options. Nothing against the 2016 vote which sounds good at a political / high level vs. did the digging / homework.

    1. Good insight–every solution has drawbacks, and the drawbacks you point out are significant. Thanks for keeping the discussion going. There are a lot of complicated Constitutional and historical factors at play in this issue, including the ones that you raised.

  5. If they want to be represented then give that land back to Delaware. Delaware ceded land to set up the District of Columbia and in no way should it be made a state. Giving more power to liberals would undermine our country even more than it already is.

    1. Returning parts of the District to Maryland is certainly one idea that some have proposed. Portions of the District were retroceded to Virginia in 1847 and, as you point out, the debates then were of a political nature. Just as today, arguments over what to do with the land and people in Washington, DC are connected to concerns over the power of the Republican and Democratic parties, the decision to return land and citizens to Virginia in 1847 was made to protect the interests of plantation owners in the Virginia state legislature.

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