While Americans go to the polls on 8 November to elect a new president, the residents of Washington, DC will also vote on a slightly lesser known issue - whether their district should become a state.
The District of Columbia is unique in this denial of its civil rights. DC does neither have full control of its local affairs, nor voting representation in the House of Representatives. As the nation’s capital, it falls under the direct jurisdiction of the US Congress.
Over the years, a political movement has formed calling for statehood. There have been many fruitless attempts towards statehood, the most recent in 1982, when citizens were last consulted on the issue. The effort went largely ignored by Congress…
Will this referendum be different? DC Mayor Muriel Bowser hopes so. Her idea for an advisory referendum plan and a state constitution was unveiled back in April. A draft document was debated, and in October the city council approved the proposed constitution should the district became a state.
The initial name ‘New Columbia’ has been dropped for the simpler ‘State of Washington D.C.’ - D.C. standing for Douglass Commonwealth, in honour of the abolitionist reformer Frederick Douglass.
So how would DC become a state?
DC can do so by either amending the US constitution, or by having Congress pass a bill that would grant the district state rights. Many believe constitutional amendment is necessary, however, Alan B. Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service at George Washington University, asserts that technically “no amendment to the US constitution is required for DC statehood.”
Hence, Mayor Bowser is pursuing option two. The plan would follow the steps of the process used in 1796 to admit Tennessee as the 16th US State, that included establishing and ratifying a constitution and establishing necessary governance means such as selection of delegates and representatives.
Were a possible future state to be formed, a constitutional convention to allow residents to fine-tune the document would be held – a last-minute DC Council requirement that vindicated Bowser’s critics for drafting a state constitution with limited citizen input.
Who wants statehood?
President Obama expressed his support for statehood in 2014, though more recently he has been accused of remaining silent on the issue. The Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has promised to “be a vocal champion for D.C. statehood” if elected president. Naturally, DC Republicans have been supportive too. Yet, at the national level, the GOP oppose the plan aggressively, while Donald Trump also appears to be reluctantly against.
Muriel Bowser has been mounting the pressure. In April For the first time in 200 years, the DC Council has challenged Congress over its power to approve the local city budget. The Mayor and Council planned to implement a $13 billion spending plan without congressional approval. Yet, soon afterwards the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee advanced a bill to block the city from enacting the measure. Subsequently Mayor Bowser maintained that such difficulties with Congress helped demonstrate the need to make the city the 51st state.
What happens after the election?
The morale boost of a decisive statehood backing would be immense. DC voters have not expressed themselves about statehood for 34 years. The referendum is both a means to gauge public opinion and a tool to put pressure on Congress by acknowledging that the three pre-conditions for statehood are met: a state constitution, boundaries, and acceptance of a representative form of government by a majority of the city's residents.
Still, it will take determination to get Congress to go along with DC statehood. The biggest obvious barrier to achieving statehood is Republicans in Congress. “As long as they have a majority—or strong minority—in either chamber, they're not going to let it go forward,” says Washingtonian staff writer Ben Freed, who covers local politics. “For states that lean Republican, the likelihood of two more democratic senators will be a problem,” agrees Alan B. Morrison.
Mayor Bowser is hoping for a more favourable political environment – especially if the Democrats gain control of both the House of Representatives and Senate. However, even that wouldn’t be a silver bullet to statehood, as also Democrats have proven fickle with regards to this issue.
Alan B. Morrison believes that the biggest challenge in achieving statehood is “getting the word out and getting others interested in our plight.” It is important that people understand “how unfair the current regime is,” he says and stresses the unfortunate situation in which DC residents pay federal taxes and serve in the army but have no say in their government (hence the famous slogan Taxation without representation).
But there are other barriers, too. Quite simply, DC is not ready to be a state because it is not equipped to carry out many of the functions that states are expected to. “The elements of statehood fall into two categories. One can be called the ‘levers of democracy,’ like budget autonomy and changing the attorney-general position from an appointed one to an elected one,” explains Ben Freed, adding that there is also “the public services residents of states expect from their governments.”
DC does not fund its own judicial system. Criminal prosecutions are handled by the US attorney's office, courts are paid for with federal funds, and convicted criminals are housed in jails all over the country. Nor does it have a reputable public research university that can attract top-tier academic talent. “Quite simply, even if we're emotionally ready for statehood, we're not structurally prepared,” he says.
Even if statehood attempts do not succeed, there are steps that could improve today’s deadlock. Allowing the district’s representative in Congress to vote would be a brilliant first step that would allow for direct representation. An overwhelming win in next week’s referendum would certainly help. As Washingtonian’s Freed puts it: “the moral case for statehood is unimpeachable.”