Why Isn't Washington, D.C. a State?

This is why D.C. license plates say “End of taxation without representation”.

Before the American Revolution, one of the main complaints from settlers about the British Empire was that it imposed “taxation without representation” – a slogan that Washington, D.C., has since adopted as its unofficial motto.

In 2000, D.C. began printing “Taxation Without Representation” on all standard city license plates, and in 2016 the city updated it for “End Taxation Without Representation”. License plates refer to the fact that DC residents pay federal taxes without having voting representatives in the US Congress, and they are part of a long history of DC’s struggle for the same voting rights and autonomy government than the 50 states.

After reconstruction, Congress abolishes the government of D.C.

Washington, D.C. is the ancestral home of the Nacotchtank people, also known as the Anacostans. After the British settlers violently drove them from their land, they became part of Maryland and Virginia. In 1790, these two states ceded the territory to establish the District of Columbia as the capital of the United States. At the time, about 3,000 people lived in D.C. – too little to become a state – and white men who owned property in D.C. continued to vote in Maryland or Virginia as they did before.

The Capitol in Washington, D.C., circa 1852.

Beginning in the early 19th century, Congress established a series of different models of government that allowed voters to elect certain local leaders while depriving them of the right to vote for the president or electing voting members of the government. Congress. Then, in the 1870s, Congress also deprived D.C. of its local representation. White MPs did not want newly freed black men to rule the nation’s capital.

During reconstruction, black Americans made up about a third of the population of D.C. Once black men won the right to vote in D.C.’s local elections in 1867, they quickly established themselves in the city’s local government. Congress responded by dismantling this government through new laws in 1871 and 1874 that granted the president – for whom DC residents still could not vote – the sole power to appoint leaders of DC The president could consult Congress when these leaders were appointed, but since DC voters could not elect voting members of Congress, they had no way of influencing these decisions.

The President, members of Congress and many federal staff remained immune to these changes as they were registered to vote in their home countries. D.C.’s restrictions on voting and self-government only applied to full-time residents. And, like the racist voting restrictions that southern states used to prevent black men from voting after reconstruction, these restrictions were specifically designed to suppress black political power.

John Tyler Morgan, a former Confederate soldier who joined the United States Senate in 1877, was explicit about this intention. He said Congress had to “burn the barn to get rid of the rats … the rats being the Negro population and the barn being the District of Columbia government”.

READ MORE: When did African Americans get the right to vote?

The era of civil rights brings change

The 1870s system that denied residents of D.C. the right to vote for their own local government – as well as members of Congress and the president who oversaw that government – remained in place for almost a century. Meanwhile, the black population of D.C. increased. In 1957, D.C. became the first predominantly black city in the country. In 1970, the black population peaked at over 537,000 people, or 71% of the city’s population. By then, many white residents had moved to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia where they could enjoy full voting rights.

Black residents of D.C. fought to change the uneven status of their city during the civil rights movement and won some key victories. The first was the right to vote for the president and vice-president through the 23rd amendment, ratified in 1961. The city held its first presidential election in 1964, overwhelmingly voting for serving president Lyndon B. Johnson on Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona who voted against the Civil Rights Act earlier this year.

There were still drawbacks to this victory. Even though the most recent census of the DC population of more than 760,000 people made it more populous than 11 states, it could not receive more voters than the least populated state (it was Alaska , with approximately 226,000 people). Since 1964, D.C. has always had three voters, the lowest number possible, regardless of the size of its population.

The scene at a national capital polling station where residents were allowed to vote for the first time since 1800, November 3, 1964.

Self-government was another battle. A century after the reconstruction, there were still many white members of Congress who did not think that a city with such a black population should govern itself. John Rarick, a member of the House representing Louisiana, “warned that any measure granting the district the power to govern itself could lead to a takeover by black Muslims,” ​​reported the Associated Press in 1972 .

Despite such resistance, residents of DC obtained the right to elect their own mayor and city council through the Home Rule Act, which Congress passed in 1973. The following year DC elected Democrat Walter E. Washington as first autonomous mayor. However, there were limits to what the new self-government could do. Congress has the right to reject all laws passed by the mayor and council of D.C., and has used it to overturn many laws of D.C.

In 1971, D.C. also won a non-voting delegate in the United States House of Representatives. This delegate can sit on committees and speak but cannot vote on the final version of a law. There was in fact a significant push to give the city voting members of Congress at the time: in 1978 Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have given Washington, DC, two voting senators and one voting member of the Bedroom. However, he died in 1985 after having failed to obtain the ratification of the 38 requested States.

Could D.C. Become the 51st State?

Since 1980, D.C. has advocated for the representation of Congress through the state. Activists and politicians have linked the struggle for the representation of D.C. to similar struggles in the American territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. Like residents of D.C. in 1960, American citizens living in these territories pay federal taxes but do not have voting members of Congress and cannot vote for the president.

Many state advocates have pointed out that there is no constitutional reason why D.C., a city of 68 square miles with a population larger than Wyoming and Vermont, should not become a state.

“Opponents of the state of Washington advance specious legal arguments, claiming that the Constitution imposes complete federal authority on the district and thus excludes the state,” wrote Susan Rice, former national security adviser to Barack Obama, in the New york times. “But the Constitution simply states that the federal enclave cannot exceed 10 square miles; it does not prohibit cutting out a limited area for government buildings which remains under federal control, while making the rest of the district a state. “

Congress introduced several bills that would make D.C. the 51st state. None of these have passed through the two houses so far, but politicians and activists continue to push for a state.

READ MORE: US states: 50 states and state capitals

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