As Election Day nears, conservative lawmakers like Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming have warned that Democrats plan to “stack the Senate” by admitting new states to the union if they win control of the presidency and Congress. We certainly hope so. Democrats should make District of Columbia statehood a top priority if they win in November. Adding a star to the American flag for the district would be good for the Democratic Party and good for democracy.
This is especially important now, as demographic shifts risk radically unbalancing the electoral system. As Democrat-friendly urban areas continue to grow, low-population conservative states in the Midwest and Mountain West have gained electoral strength that far exceeds their numbers. As per one estimate, if this trend continues, by 2040 roughly 30 percent of the population will control nearly 70 Senate seats and a disproportionate chunk of the Electoral College. With many Republican state legislatures openly pursuing an agenda of gerrymandering and voter suppression, the enormous power reserved to small states will be disproportionately wielded by the old, the white and the Republican.
We already have seen the impact of this imbalance. In 2016 Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots yet won the presidency in the Electoral College. Democrats earned 18 million more votes nationwide than Republicans among 2018 Senate candidates, yet the GOP increased its majority in the chamber. And in the past four years a bare majority of senators, representing a minority of Americans have blocked an effort to remove a President from office despite incontrovertible evidence that he committed impeachable offenses. They have confirmed two Supreme Court justices and are poised to confirm a third.
Such a radical disconnect between the will of the majority and the power of a minority has created a crippling crisis of legitimacy.
This summer, the House of Representatives voted 232-180 to turn Washington, D.C., into the nation’s 51st state. The first D.C. statehood bill to pass a house of Congress, the legislation would shrink the federal district to the White House, the National Mall, and the Capitol complex, and grant voting representation in the House and Senate to the 700,000-plus D.C. residents who live outside of those areas.
Republicans are vehemently opposed. Why? Not for any procedural or good-faith constitutional reasons. D.C., which has more people than Vermont or Wyoming and is gaining on Alaska, pays more in federal taxes than 21 states and its young people have served in every U.S. war of the past two centuries. D.C. residents originally had the right to vote in congressional elections, but it was stripped away by the Organic Act of 1801, a hastily crafted bill passed by a lame-duck Federalist Congress. They have been fighting for voting representation in Congress ever since.
No, Republicans oppose granting full voting rights to D.C. residents primarily because they fear the new state will produce two new Democratic senators. They are right. And that is precisely why Democrats should make securing the House and Senate votes needed to achieve D.C. statehood a priority.
Some readers who believe such issues should be detached from party politics may wince at our openly partisan appeal. But admitting new states has always been partisan. In the 19th century, party and regional antagonisms drove the process of admitting new states. Think of the famous Missouri Compromise in 1820, when Maine was carved from Massachusetts as a free state to balance the admission of a slave state, Missouri. In the decades following the Civil War, Republicans rammed more than half a dozen new sparsely populated Western states through Congress to strengthen their hold on the federal government. Partisan, ideological and racial politics stalled the admission of Hawaii and Alaska until party leaders agreed to admit the two together in 1959.
In this highly polarized political moment, it is hard to imagine bipartisan support for D.C. statehood. Yet Republican opposition to the right of D.C. citizens to full representation in Congress is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the mid-20th century, when district residents had no voting rights and were governed by three presidentially appointed commissioners, members of both parties favored expanded voting rights. In 1961, Democrats and Republicans alike supported the 23rd Amendment giving Washingtonians the right to vote for president. Richard Nixon signed a 1970 law giving the district a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives and, three years later, signed the D.C. Home Rule Act creating an elected local government.
In the mid-1970s, D.C. voting rights activists pushed for a D.C. Voting Rights Amendment, which called for treating the district “as though it were a state” to allow for voting representation in Congress. It won support from staunch conservative senators like Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (under pressure from his Black constituents). “Human rights begins at home, here in the nation’s capital,” Thurmond intoned as the Senate passed the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment in 1978.
But in the past 40 years the Republican Party has become unalterably opposed to D.C. statehood. “New Right” activists targeted the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment as it moved to the states for ratification, with Pat Buchanan attacking it as an “affirmative action program to guarantee two Blacks in the U.S. Senate” and Phyllis Schlafly claiming that it would give “special privileges and power to Washington bureaucrats” (even though a majority of federal workers lived in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs). With support from President Ronald Reagan, these conservatives helped defeat the amendment by 1985. Since then, Republicans have opposed all efforts to expand voting rights in the district.
Democrats, meanwhile, have wavered. Though many supported statehood in principle, they were unwilling to spend political capital to make it happen. They had their best opportunity in 1993, when newly elected President Bill Clinton had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. The district’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and “shadow senator” Jesse Jackson, lobbied hard for a statehood bill.
Republicans mounted a spirited opposition, with Tom DeLay of Texas arguing that the district was a “liberal bastion of corruption and crime” that should be stripped of the franchise altogether. Before this barrage, many Democrats scattered. President Clinton, who had endorsed statehood on the campaign trail, made clear that he had other priorities. The House Democratic leadership considered statehood a symbolic issue and neglected to broker the deals necessary to pass it. Left free to vote as they wished, some Democrats opposed the legislation for all manner of parochial reasons. All but one Democrat from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs voted against statehood fearing that a new state could impose a commuter tax on their residents, for instance. The bill died, 277-153. It was, an angry Mr. Jackson declared, “a lost opportunity for Democrats and democracy.”
Today’s Democrats have promised a robust agenda that includes restoring the Voting Rights Act, fighting voter suppression, fixing gerrymandering and fighting hard for D.C. statehood.
For the more than 700,000 voteless residents of the District of Columbia, for their own self-interest and for the sake of American democracy, they must make good on this promise if they secure the Senate and the White House in November.
Chris Myers Asch teaches history at Colby College. George Derek Musgrove is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They are the co-authors of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.”
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