Why is D.C. statehood a civil rights issue?
Voting is among the most fundamental of civil rights. The ongoing denial of full voting rights to the 700,000 residents of D.C., most of whom are Black and Brown, is an egregious example of ongoing voter suppression happening in our country today.
Without statehood, D.C. residents do not have any voting representation in Congress, even though Congress exerts undue power over the people who live in D.C. The people of D.C. are also denied the right to pass their own laws without congressional approval. Congress has repeatedly vetoed many important D.C. laws, causing great harm to local public health and community safety.
Because D.C. is not a state, it doesn’t have full control over its own criminal justice system. This means D.C. is unable to enact criminal justice reforms that would improve safety and wellbeing of the 700,000 people who live in the District.
Washington, D.C. is the only national capital in the democratic world whose citizens do not have equal voting and representation rights.
What is the racist history of denying statehood to D.C. residents?
The denial of statehood to D.C. residents has always been rooted in racism. In 1867, right after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson vetoed a bill that would grant citizens of the District--including Black men--the right to vote. Congress overrode the veto, briefly granting notable and historic political influence to Black Washingtonians. But just as Black voters started to exercise their political power in D.C., Congress quickly replaced D.C.'s local government with federally appointed commissioners, blocking the heavily-Black region from having full voting rights or control over its own local government.
Congress’s goal was clear: to disempower an increasingly politically active Black community. In 1890, Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama stated, after “the negroes came into this district,” it became necessary to “deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being.” Senator Morgan explained his rationale shamefully saying Congress had to “burn down the barn to get rid of the rats.”
If D.C. became a state, it would have a majority of Black and Brown residents. The denial of statehood to D.C. is an egregious example of voter suppression happening in our country today.
Is it constitutional to make D.C. a state?
D.C. statehood is constitutional and granting D.C. statehood does not require any new constitutional amendments. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the authority to admit new states, and every state that has been admitted to the Union after ratification of the Constitution in 1788, has been admitted by Congress.
The Washington, D.C. Admission Act would create a state from the residential areas of D.C. and carve out federal land--including the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other federal buildings--as a separate and distinct federal district. The federal district would be two-square miles and called the Capital. The 51st state, called the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, would have no jurisdiction over the Capital.
We know for certain Congress has the constitutional power to reduce the size of the Capital because it has already done so. In 1848, Congress returned most of Arlington and Alexandria from D.C. to the state of Virginia. Even before that, in 1791, just four years after the Constitution was signed, Congress changed the District’s configuration.
Founding Fathers James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay always envisioned full voting rights for D.C. residents, writing in the Federalist Papers that D.C. residents “will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them.”
What about the 23rd Amendment?
The 23rd Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1961 to expand voting rights and give the people living in the Federal District three electoral votes for president. Making D.C. a state does not violate the 23rd amendment—it simply makes the Federal District smaller and would leave the president and their family as the only residents of the resized Federal District. Legislation to turn D.C. into the 51st state would recommend an expedited process to review the 23rd amendment. One solution is that the president and their family could opt to vote in their previous home state. Whatever the policy solution is for the 23rd amendment, turning D.C. into a state does not violate it.
What does it mean that D.C. doesn’t have control over its own laws?
Unlike every other state, D.C. cannot pass its own laws without “congressional review,” something Congress has used repeatedly to block and override the will of the people in D.C.
Under the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973, all laws passed by the D.C. Council and signed by the mayor, are subject to a mandatory "congressional review" by the U.S. Congress, anywhere between 30 and 60 days depending on the type of legislation. Only after the congressional review period--if they are not blocked by Congress--can those laws go into effect.
Congress is also able to create its own legislation for D.C. without any input from D.C. residents. It can do this either through passing a bill through both the House and Senate and having it signed by the President (which happens less often) or by attaching “riders” to the D.C. budget during the “Congressional Appropriations Process.” Congress attaches riders to D.C.’s budget frequently and annually. Riders have been added to D.C.’s budget every year since Home Rule was established in 1973. In 2001 alone, Congress added 70 riders to the D.C. budget.
Some of the many examples of Congress injecting itself and attempting to block the will of the people in D.C. include:
• In 1981, Congress overturned legislation to decriminalize same-sex activity in D.C., stalling D.C.’s effort to remove its discriminatory “sodomy” law by more than a decade.
• In 1992, the D.C. Council legalized same-sex domestic partnerships in the Health Benefits Expansion Act, but Congress refused to allow D.C to fund the measure until 2002.
• In 1992, Congress ordered a referendum in D.C. in an attempt to reinstate the death penalty in the District. (The District’s death penalty was nullified by the Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia in 1972 and repealed by the D.C. Council in 1981.)
• In 1989, Congress introduced the Dornan Amendment as a rider to the District’s budget, which to this day still blocks D.C. from using its own local tax dollars to provide abortion coverage for individuals enrolled in Medicaid--something that all other states are free to do.
• In 1998, Congress added a rider to the D.C. budget blocking the District from using its own funds to pay for HIV/Needle Exchange Programs. This action stalled the program by nearly a decade and cost D.C. residents’ lives and money.
How does lack of statehood harm the criminal justice system in D.C.?
Lack of statehood means that D.C. does not have control over many aspects of its own criminal justice system and is unable to enact needed reforms.
In every other U.S. state, state judges are appointed by state officials or elected, but D.C. judges are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Although D.C. has a locally elected attorney general, all felonies and some misdemeanors are prosecuted by a federally appointed U.S. Attorney. This is important because all other cities and states have elected district attorneys who can work to reform local criminal justice policies and combat issues of mass incarceration through prosecutorial reform. In D.C., because all felonies and some misdemeanors are prosecuted by the federal U.S. Attorney who has no accountability to local voters, prosecutorial reform—which is key to combating mass incarceration—is virtually impossible.
D.C. also does not have control over its prison system. Those convicted of offenses in D.C are put into the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons, which incarcerates them as far away as California and Arizona. Inmates in federal custody are less likely to maintain close family ties during their incarceration due to the distance and expense for family members to travel to visit, which hampers successful reentry after incarceration. Maintaining familial and community bonds is essential to successful rehabilitation both during and after incarceration. Incarcerating D.C. residents hundreds of miles from their home and connections is deeply harmful to D.C. families.
Finally, parole reform is an essential component to criminal justice reform, but, unlike every other state, D.C. lacks local control over its parole system. All parole decisions for D.C.’s returning citizens are made by the Federal U.S. Parole Commission instead of a local agency, making local parole reform impossible without federal policy changes or statehood.
How does lack of statehood harm public health in D.C.?
Denying statehood to Washington, D.C. has detrimental effects on local public health.
Without statehood, Congress has the power to veto any law passed by the District and local budgets must be approved by Congress. Unlike in the states, a law passed and signed by the D.C. mayor must still go through a Congressional review period before it can take effect. Even after a law takes effect, Congress--which has no representation from District voters--can still repeal the law.
• At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Congress passed a stimulus bill that provided every U.S. state with $1.25 billion in aid, but Congress chose to treat the District of Columbia as a territory and provide D.C. with less than half that funding. At the time, D.C. had more confirmed COVID-19 cases than 19 states.
• Without statehood, D.C. lacks the ability to ensure federal funding programs don’t shortchange people living in the District.
HIV/ Needle Exchange:
• In 1998, Congress intervened and stopped the District of Columbia from using its own funds to pay for needle exchange programs, which states across the country were implementing at the time to slow the spread of HIV.
• When Congress finally lifted the needle exchange program ban in 2007, the District had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the country.
• When D.C. was finally able to implement needle exchange programs after the decade-long ban, HIV infection rates dropped by 70 percent. In just two years alone, needle exchange programs prevented about 120 people from becoming infected with HIV, and saved the District $44 million, according to a study by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.
• Allowing D.C. autonomy on this issue, as any state would, continues to improve public health and save lives and money in the District. The many years Congress overruled local residents on their desire for a HIV/Needle Exchange program cost D.C. residents both lives and money.
• Congress regularly uses its power to block the District from using its own local tax dollars to provide abortion access to low-income individuals.
• Specifically, Congress attaches a rider known as the Dornan Amendment to an annual appropriations bill, blocking the District from using local tax dollars to provide abortion coverage for individuals enrolled in Medicaid--something that all other states are free to do.
• Bans on insurance coverage for abortion disproportionately harm poor women, and particularly poor women of color, forcing many to choose between paying for the care they need and paying for rent, bills, or other necessities.
How does lack of statehood harm immigrants’ rights in D.C.?
Despite the D.C. Council declaring D.C. a Sanctuary City, local officials cannot effectively protect immigrants from deportation if they are visiting local courts because U.S. Marshals guard the D.C. court buildings and will enforce I.C.E detainment and deportation orders.
How does lack of statehood harm LGTBQ rights in D.C.?
In 1981, Congress vetoed legislation to decriminalize same sex activity in the District. D.C. finally successfully repealed its sodomy law in 1993, a full 11 years delayed due to Congress’s intervention.
In 1992, the D.C. Council legalized same-sex domestic partnerships, allowing domestic partners to receive health insurance. Congress refused to approve funding for this measure until 2002, blocking the will of the people and this right for LGTBQ people for a decade.
How does lack of statehood impact law enforcement agencies in D.C.?
Unlike every other state, D.C. doesn’t have full control of its own police force or its local National Guard troops. The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, highlighted that D.C., unlike every other state, does not have the authority to deploy its own National Guard troops to protect its residents without approval from the Department of Defense. During the attack on the Capitol Building, that approval came after a multi-hour delay by the Trump Administration. And, because D.C. is not a state, the president has the authority to take over the D.C. Police force, something President Trump threatened to do repeatedly during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in D.C.
How do taxes for D.C. residents work?
Residents of D.C. pay both local and federal taxes, just like everyone else, but unlike residents of every other state, they are denied full voting representation in Congress. In fact, D.C. residents pay more taxes per person than residents in any other state in the country. In total, D.C. residents pay more in total federal income tax than residents of 22 other states, but they have no say over how Congress spends their tax dollars.
“No taxation without representation” was the rallying cry of Americans against Britain in the Revolutionary War, which led to the foundation of our country. Today, only residents of D.C. and Puerto Rico are still taxed without representation.
How many people live in D.C.?
As of December 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates D.C.’s population has grown to 712,000. The District’s population exceeds the populations of both Vermont and Wyoming and is comparable to the populations of Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Delaware.
How are military service members impacted by lack of D.C. statehood?
Since World War I, D.C, has sent nearly 200,000 men and women abroad to defend and fight for Democracy, 2,000 of whom never made it home.
Among D.C.’s voting population today are more than 11,000 active-duty service members and more than 30,000 veterans, all of whom are being denied their full voting rights simply because they live in D.C.
These service members risk their lives to protect the rights of Americans, yet they are denied their own full rights at home.
Does Washington, D.C. have enough money and internal infrastructure to be its own state?
Washington, D.C. already operates with the responsibilities of a state--without its residents enjoying the same rights, and without having full control over its own criminal justice system or the ability to pass its own laws without congressional approval.
D.C. residents pay the highest per-capita federal income taxes in the U.S. In total, D.C. residents pay more in federal income tax than residents of 22 other states, but they have no say over how those federal tax dollars are spent by Congress. D.C. is no more reliant on federal funding than other existing states. D.C. receives less federal funding than five states, and about the same as three other states.
D.C. has a greater gross domestic product than many states and has also balanced its budget every year for at least 20 years. D.C. has a AAA bond rating, a rating higher than 35 states.
What will happen to the D.C. statehood bill in the Senate?
In order to become law, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act must pass in the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and be signed into law by the President. In the Senate, the filibuster is a Senate rule that 60 votes are needed to end a debate on a bill and move forward to a vote. A vote of 51 Senators supporting D.C. Statehood would make Washington, D.C. the 51st State. Building broad, bipartisan support is critical to advancing D.C. statehood.
After a statehood bill passes, how will everything work?
D.C.’s mayor will be given a new title as governor and the D.C. Council will become the functional state legislature. Elections will be held for the new state legislature positions created by the state constitution, and for the new U.S. Senate seats. The new state will be granted all of the same rights as every other state, and D.C. residents will be granted their full civil rights, including voting representation in Congress and the right to pass their own laws without congressional oversight and threats of congressional vetoes.
There will be time period after a statehood bill passes for residents to provide their input to the state legislature and governor on how they want important aspects of their new state to operate, including how D.C. will operate its own prisons and run its social services. Some aspects of statehood could take months or years to fully transition out of their current hybrid model with the federal government.
Should D.C. just become part of Maryland?
D.C. residents overwhelmingly want D.C. to become its own state, and just as importantly, the people of Maryland do not want to adopt the city of D.C. as part of their state. The retrocession bill introduced in the House in 2021 by Representative Dusty Johnson (R-SD) has no support from representatives of either D.C. or Maryland and is not a viable path forward.
In 2016, more than 85 percent of D.C. residents voted in favor of a referendum to turn Washington, D.C. into a state. Retrocession is inconsistent with the people of D.C.’s pursuit of self-determination.
Is D.C. statehood a partisan issue?
D.C. statehood is a campaign for equal civil rights for all Americans. Every member of Congress and every person who believes in Democracy and equal rights should support D.C. statehood.
A person’s political or party affiliation has never, and should never, be a reason to deny them the right to vote. This is fundamental to Democracy.
What about Puerto Rico?
Residents of Puerto Rico must be given the freedom to design their own path forward, whether that means statehood, independence, free association, or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.