DC might become a state! Under H.R. 51, which is slated to pass the House today, the federal district with all the monuments and office buildings would remain the capital, but the rest of DC, where more than 700,000 people live would become Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, named after the abolitionist and "Lion of Anacostia" Frederick Douglass.
I've followed the statehood debate for years so wanted to share a couple quick hits on common objections to statehood and why they're wrong. (Not surprisingly, Republicans aren't arguing against statehood in good faith!)
1. Just retrocede to Maryland to get representation.
This is certainly a thing that can happen in theory, but there's one small problem: Maryland doesn't want it. Neither does DC. In fact, DC residents explicitly voted for statehood, including approving their own state constitution.
The core value in the DC statehood debate is self-determination in a democracy. Historically, the Virginia portion of old DC was retroceded to that state with the approval of residents who lived there.
Finally, this isn't a serious argument because with very rare exceptions, the Republicans who invoke it don't actually favor retrocession, as evidenced by their failure to introduce bills for retrocession. It's just an empty talking point meant to distract from the thing with actual political support by pointing to a "solution" that doesn't have political support.
2. Arguments about partisanship.
It's true that a super-majority of DC residents are Democrats and are likely to elect Democratic senators. But if DC were largely Republican, people who live here would still support statehood. Democracy and self-determination are more important values than partisanship.
And in fact, DC was stripped of representation in Congress in 1801 by a lame duck Federalist Congress before either of today's political parties existed.
Let's also not kid ourselves: Republicans would absolutely run candidates here just like Democrats run candidates in red states. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they run as independents who caucus with a party. If Republicans can't imagine fielding a candidate who is able to appeal to voters here, they're admitting a lot more than they probably care to!
3. Misreading the Founders
Conservatives love offering up a selective reading of James Madison's Federalist no. 43, which warns against too much power getting accumulated in the capital if it's tied to a single state.
But Madison also promised that residents would be "willing parties to the cession." In fact, they were not, with Congress violating Madison's promise just a few years after the Constitution was ratified:
The extent of this federal district is sufficiently circumscribed to satisfy every jealousy of an opposite nature. And as it is to be appropriated to this use with the consent of the State ceding it; as the State will no doubt provide in the compact for the rights and the consent of the citizens inhabiting it; as the inhabitants will find sufficient inducements of interest to become willing parties to the cession; as they will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them; as a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed them; and as the authority of the legislature of the State, and of the inhabitants of the ceded part of it, to concur in the cession, will be derived from the whole people of the State in their adoption of the Constitution, every imaginable objection seems to be obviated.
Historically, the capital also sits between two states: Maryland and Virginia. The Civil War forts that dot the city are a testament to the compromise that set the young nation's capital between the future Confederacy and Union.
Under H.R. 51, the capital would share borders with Virginia and Douglass Commonwealth, with Maryland not far away. This is totally consistent with Madison's warnings about not putting the capital in a single state.
Sometimes, Republicans claim that DC residents are too tied to the federal government. But the federal government is a major employer in Maryland and Virginia, too. It's also a major employer around NASA facilities which dot the country, but we don't talk about disenfranchising those people.
4. DC is uh...different
A lot of arguments against statehood are just racist dog-whistling or stereotypes about city residents or federal workers. In fact, DC is home to thousands of restaurant workers, teachers, and fire fighters just like any other place in America, not that your occupation has anything to do with your voting rights. Sometimes Republicans who work in DC also say wildly wrong stuff, like claiming there are no car dealerships here (there are!), as if that has anything to do with being state.
5. We have to deal with the 23rd amendment.
The best argument the anti-statehood folks have is the 23rd Amendment, which grants DC 3 electoral votes in presidential elections. H.R. 51 would kickstart a process for amending the Constitution and we actually have a decent track record of passing "fix it" amendments rather quickly, including the amendment that granted 18 year olds the right to vote.
In this case, the only permanent residents of the capital would be the occupants of the White House. Theoretically, they could be the only voters in the capital, but the bill instructs states to allow residents of the capital to register and vote in those states, so a Donald Trump would vote in Florida while a Joe Biden would vote in Delaware. One of the Obama kids actually registered to vote in DC, so in that circumstance, presumably someone would be able to vote in Douglass Commonwealth or their old state of residency, in the Obama case, Illinois.
But even if we imagine this worst-case scenario of a president's family trying to control 3 electoral votes...where would they vote? Would they have to set up a little election office and voting booth inside the White House? Would the president's spouse have to serve as the poll worker? It's hard to imagine any president actually trying to pull that off, as fun as it is to think about as a plot point.
More prosaically, the 23rd Amendment can be read narrowly as giving Congress the power to determine how DC's electoral votes are distributed. Congress could simply pass legislation giving them to the popular vote winner or distributing them to the eventual winner of the Electoral College as a bonus. Easy-peasy!
Anyway, that's all for now. Hopefully the Senate breaks the filibuster to pass this bill. There's a very narrow window to correct the immense historical wrong of 1801. It's time for 700,000 DC residents to get the full representation they deserve.
(Cover image via ACLU.)