Statehood movement in the District of Columbia

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A protest variant of the flag, from 2002

The District of Columbia statehood movement is a political movement that advocates making the District of Columbia a U.S. state. The District of Columbia is a federal district under the direct jurisdiction of the United States Congress. Unlike nearly all other states and territories, which contain multiple cities, the District of Columbia only contains one (Washington), having subsumed the formerly separate municipality of Georgetown. Statehood would grant the District voting representation in the Congress and full control over local affairs. For most of the modern (1980–present) statehood movement, the new state's name would have been "New Columbia", although the Washington, D.C. Admission Act of 2020 refers to the proposed state as the "State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth".[1][2]

Statehood for the District might be achieved by an act of Congress, under the power granted to Congress by the United States Constitution to admit new states to the Union (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1). However, there is some debate as to whether simple legislation would be sufficient to grant statehood to District of Columbia, which is the seat of the United States federal government.

If the District of Columbia were to become a state – based on 2018 figures – it would rank 49th by population (ahead of Vermont and Wyoming), 51st by area, 1st by GDP per capita, 1st by median household income, and 34th by total GDP. According to 2020 data, the District of Columbia would be by far the most partisan of any state in the Union, with a Cook Partisan Voting Index of D+43.[3][4][unreliable source?]


The U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry has designed this 51-star version of the national flag for use in the event that a 51st state is admitted into the Union.

District Clause of the Constitution[edit]

In 1783, a crowd of disbanded Revolutionary War soldiers angry about not having been paid gathered to protest outside the building where the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The soldiers blocked the door and initially refused to allow the delegates to leave. Despite requests from the Congress, the Pennsylvania state government declined to call out its militia to deal with the unruly mob, and so Congress was forced to abruptly adjourn to New Jersey.

This led to the widespread belief that Congress needed control over the national capital. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 43, "Without it, not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity; but a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy." This belief resulted in the creation of a national capital, separate from any state, by the Constitution's District Clause.[5]

The "District Clause" in Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the United States Constitution states:

[The Congress shall have Power] To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States.

However, Madison further wrote in Federalist 43 that the residents of the new federal district "will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them". Madison did not elaborate as to how this would be but even with a then unidentified parcel suggested that the principles of self-government would not be absent in the capital of the Republic.

Early discussions of voting rights[edit]

In 1788, the land on which the District is formed was ceded by Maryland. In 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act placing the District on the Potomac River between the Anacostia and Connogochegue with the exact location chosen by President George Washington. His selection was announced on January 24, 1791, and the Residence Act was amended to include land that Virginia had ceded in 1790. That land was returned to Virginia in 1847. The Congress did not officially move to the new federal capital until the first Monday in December 1800. During that time, the District was governed by a combination of a federally appointed Board of Commissioners, the state legislatures and locally elected governments.[6]

Within a year of moving to the District, Congress passed the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 and incorporated the new federal District under its sole authority as permitted by the District Clause. Since the District of Columbia was no longer part of any state, the District's residents lost voting representation in Congress and the Electoral College as well as a voice in Constitutional Amendments and the right to home rule, facts that did not go without protest.[7] In January 1801, a meeting of District citizens was held which resulted in a statement to Congress commenting that as a result of the impending Organic Act "we shall be completely disfranchised in respect to the national government, while we retain no security for participating in the formation of even the most minute local regulations by which we are to be affected. We shall be reduced to that deprecated condition of which we pathetically complained in our charges against Great Britain, of being taxed without representation."[6]

Talk of suffrage for the District of Columbia began almost immediately, though it mostly focused on a constitutional amendments and retrocession, not statehood. In 1801, Augustus Woodward writing under the name Epaminondes, wrote a series of newspaper articles in the National Intelligencer proposing a constitutional amendment that would read "The Territory of Columbia shall be entitled to one Senator in the Senate of the United States; and to a number of members in the House of Representatives proportionate to its population."[8] Since then more than 150 constitutional amendments and bills have been introduced to provide representation to the District of Columbia, resulting in congressional hearings on more than twenty occasions, with the first of those hearings in 1803.[9] At that time, resolutions were introduced by Congress to retrocede most of District of Columbia to Maryland. Citizens fearful that the seat of government be moved asked that D.C. be given a territorial government and an amendment to the Constitution for equal rights. But James Holland of North Carolina argued that creating a territorial government would leave citizens dissatisfied. He said, "the next step will be a request to be admitted as a member of the Union, and, if you pursue the practice relative to territories, you must, so soon as their numbers will authorize it, admit them into the Union."[10]

Late 19th and early 20th century[edit]

The first proposal for congressional representation to get serious consideration came in 1888, but it would not be until 1921 that congressional hearings would be held on the subject. Those hearings resulted in the first bill, introduced by Sen. Wesley Livsey Jones (R-WA), to be reported out of committee that would have addressed District representation. The bill would have enabled – though not required – Congress to treat residents of D.C. as though they were citizens of a state.

Civil rights era and the 23rd Amendment, 1950s–1970s[edit]

Congressional members continued to propose amendments to address the District's lack of representation, with efforts picking up as part of the Civil rights movement in the late 1950s. This eventually resulted in successful passage of the Twenty-third Amendment in 1961, which granted the District votes in the Electoral College in proportion to their size as if they were a state, but no more than the least populous state. This right has been exercised by D.C. citizens since the presidential election of 1964.

With District citizens still denied full suffrage, members continued to propose bills to address congressional representation. Such bills made it out of committee in 1967 and 1972, for a House floor for a vote in 1976 and in 1978 resulted in the formal proposal of the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment. But that amendment expired in 1985, 22 ratifications short of the needed 38.


D.C. Statehood Now! flag at Inauguration 2013

Before the failure of the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment, but when passage seemed unlikely, District voters finally began to pursue statehood. In 1980, District voters approved the call of a constitutional convention to draft a proposed state constitution,[11] just as U.S. territories had done prior to their admission as states. The convention was held in February through April 1982.[12] The proposed constitution was ratified by District voters in 1982 for a new state to be called "New Columbia".[13] In 1987, another state constitution[14] was drafted, which again referred to the proposed state as New Columbia. Since the 98th Congress, more than a dozen statehood bills have been introduced, with two bills being reported out of the committee of jurisdictions.[15] The second of these bills made it to the House floor in November 1993, for the only floor debate and vote on D.C. statehood. It was defeated in the House of Representatives by a vote of 277 to 153.

Pursuant to the 1980 proposed state constitution, the District still selects members of a shadow congressional delegation, consisting of two shadow Senators and a shadow Representative, to lobby the Congress to grant statehood. These positions are not officially recognized by the Congress. Additionally, until May 2008, the Congress prohibited the District from spending any funds on lobbying for voting representation or statehood.[16]

Since the 1993 vote, bills to grant statehood to the District have been introduced in Congress each year but have not been brought to a vote.[17] Following a 2012 statehood referendum in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, political commentators endorsed the idea of admitting both the District and Puerto Rico into the Union.[18][19]

In July 2014, President Barack Obama became the second sitting president, after Bill Clinton in 1993, to endorse statehood for the District of Columbia. Asked about his opinion on statehood in a town-hall event, he said "I’m in D.C., so I’m for it ... Folks in D.C. pay taxes like everybody else ... They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. They should be represented like everybody else. And it's not as if Washington, D.C., is not big enough compared to other states. There has been a long movement to get D.C. statehood and I've been for it for quite some time. The politics of it end up being difficult to get it through Congress, but I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do."[20][21] D.C. residents now pay more in taxes than 22 states.[22]

For more than 20 years following the 1993 floor vote, there were no congressional hearings on D.C. statehood. But on September 15, 2014, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held a hearing on bill S. 132, which would have created a new state out of the current District of Columbia, similar to the 1993 bill.[23]

On December 4, 2015, the District of Columbia was granted membership in the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, an advocacy group for people groups and territories which do not receive full representation in the government of the state they reside in.[24]

2016 statehood referendum[edit]

District of Columbia statehood referendum, 2016
November 8, 2016; 4 years ago (2016-11-08)

LocationDistrict of Columbia
Voting systemsimple majority
Shall the voters of the District of Columbia advise the Council to approve or reject this proposal?

On April 15, 2016, District Mayor Muriel Bowser called for a districtwide vote on whether the nation's capital should become the 51st state.[25] This was followed by the release of a proposed state constitution.[26] This constitution would make the Mayor of the District of Columbia the governor of the proposed state, while the members of the District Council would make up the proposed House of Delegates. While the name "New Columbia" has long been associated with the movement, community members thought other names, such as Potomac or Douglass, were more appropriate for the area.[27]

On November 8, 2016, the voters of the District of Columbia voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood, with 86% of voters voting to advise approving the proposal.[28] Although the proposed state name on the ballot sent to voters appeared as "State of New Columbia", the resolution passed by the D.C. District Council passed in October 2016, weeks before the election, changed the name to "State of Washington, D.C.", in which "D.C." stands for "Douglass Commonwealth", a reference to African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who lived in Washington, D.C. from 1877 to 1895.[29]

H.R. 51[edit]

In March 2017, the District's congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced the Washington, D.C. Admission Act to propose D.C. statehood in the U.S. House of Representatives.[30] In May 2017, the Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate.[31]

In February 2019, the House Democratic leadership put its support behind legislation to grant D.C. statehood.[32] H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2019, included a nonbinding expression of support, passed 234 to 193 in March 2019 on a party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.[33]

The George Floyd protests in June 2020 brought attention to situations of racial injustice, and President Trump's controversial use of the D.C. National Guard (among other forces) to clear protesters from near the White House angered the city government,[34] which, unlike the states in the United States, does not directly control its National Guard. In response, Mayor Bowser ordered the painting of a nearby street with the slogan "Black Lives Matter" in giant yellow letters. On June 26, 2020, the House of Representatives passed the "Washington, D.C. Admission Act" 232–180 largely along party lines; Collin Peterson and Justin Amash were the only Democrat and Libertarian, respectively, to vote no.[35] It is not expected to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.[36][37]

The Washington, D.C. Admission Act would create the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth (named after Frederick Douglass). As a state, the Douglass Commonwealth would receive two Senators and representation in the House of Representatives based on population (a single representative would be apportioned for the foreseeable future).[34] The admission act would carve out a smaller federal district, dubbed "the Capital"; this would consist of the White House, U.S. Capitol, other federal buildings, and the National Mall and monuments.[34][33] The bill included a section on repealing the 23rd amendment, which grants the district three electoral votes on presidential elections. Were the 23rd amendment not to be repealed, the residents of the White House – i.e. the presidential family – as the only residents of the newly smaller federal district, would get the aforementioned three votes on the Electoral College.[38]

Arguments against[edit]

Prior to the District's founding, James Madison argued in Federalist No. 43 that the national capital needed to be distinct from the states in order to provide for its own maintenance and safety. He wrote, "but a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy."[39]

More recently, opponents of D.C. statehood have expressed objections to statehood on the grounds that the federal government would be dependent on a single state for its security and operations, apart from its use of federal law enforcement bodies such as the Secret Service. The new state might enact policies inconsistent with operating the federal government for the benefit of the nation as a whole.[40] The District would be far smaller than any other state by area and the District's population is smaller than all but two states, which could potentially expand the influence in national politics that small states have.[41]

Opponents argue that the newly formed state would also be unique in that interests would be dominated by those of the federal government, which would be the state's largest employer. It would also be the only state to have no rural residents and thus no need to consider the interests of non-urban areas.[42] Some have expressed concern that the newly formed state might enact a commuter tax on non-residents that work in the District; such a tax is currently illegal under the District of Columbia Home Rule Act.[43]

There is also a question as to whether granting statehood to the District would need the approval of Maryland. The U.S. Constitution requires that any new states formed from an existing state receive permission from the legislature. Since Maryland granted land to form the national capital and not a new state, some lawmakers have concluded that Maryland must also consent to the new state.[44] However, Maryland's consent was not needed when part of the Maryland cession was transferred to Virginia from D.C. in 1945. An island and surrounding mud flats had been filled in to create Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and that, and part of the Alexandria waterfront to the "pierline" were jurisdictionally transferred, allowing for police and legal control by Virginia, though title remained with Congress.[45][46]

The aforementioned District Clause of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress "exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever" over the District that serves as the nation's capital. It allows for a federal district, but does not require one. The statehood legislation supported by the District government and some House Democrats carves out an enclave within the proposed state, encompassing the White House, Capitol Building, Supreme Court Building, and other major federal offices, to act as the new federal district, known as "The Capital".[47]

Alternative proposals to statehood[edit]

Alternative proposals to statehood have been proposed to grant the District varying degrees of greater political autonomy and voting representation in the Congress. Most proposals generally involve either treating the District of Columbia more like a state or allowing Maryland to take back the land it donated to form the District.

If both Congress and the Maryland General Assembly agreed, jurisdiction over the District of Columbia could be returned to Maryland or given to Virginia if the state legislature of Virginia agreed, possibly excluding a small tract of land immediately surrounding the United States Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court building. This process is known as retrocession.[48] If the District were returned to Maryland or given to Virginia, citizens in D.C. would gain voting representation in the Congress as residents of Maryland or Virginia.[40][49] Retrocession could also alter the idea of a separate national capital as envisioned by the Founding Fathers.[50] However, retrocession is unpopular among D.C. residents.[51][better source needed]

A proposal related to retrocession was the "District of Columbia Voting Rights Restoration Act of 2004" (H.R. 3709), which would have treated the residents of the District as residents of Maryland for the purposes of congressional representation. Maryland's congressional delegation would then be apportioned accordingly to include the population of the District.[52] Those in favor of such a plan argue that the Congress already has the necessary authority to pass such legislation without the constitutional concerns of other proposed remedies. From the foundation of the District in 1790 until the passage of the Organic Act of 1801, citizens living in D.C. continued to vote for members of Congress in Maryland or Virginia; legal scholars therefore propose that the Congress has the power to restore those voting rights while maintaining the integrity of the federal district.[53] However, the proposed legislation never made it out of committee and would not grant the District any additional authority over its local affairs.[52]

Several bills have been introduced in Congress to grant the District of Columbia voting representation in one or both houses of Congress. The primary issue with all legislative proposals is whether the Congress has the constitutional authority to grant the District voting representation. Members of Congress in support of the bills claim that constitutional concerns should not prohibit the legislation's passage, but rather should be left to the courts.[54] A secondary criticism of a legislative remedy is that any law granting representation to the District could be undone in the future. Additionally, recent legislative proposals deal with granting representation in the House of Representatives only, which would still leave the issue of Senate representation for District residents unresolved.[55] Since the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment was proposed in 1978, no bill granting the District voting representation has successfully passed both houses of Congress, though the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009 did pass in the Senate in 2009. If a bill were to pass, the law would not grant the District any additional authority over its local affairs.

Political support[edit]

Civil rights, religious and labor organizations[edit]

Religious groups supporting D.C. statehood include the American Jewish Committee, the Episcopal Church, the Union for Reform Judaism, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.[citation needed]

According to the Commission for Statehood, an office of the Government of the District of Columbia, D.C. statehood is supported by the American Federation of Teachers, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP, National Treasury Employees Union, National Urban League, and SEIU.[56]


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking in support of D.C. statehood in 2020.

As well as Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic 2016 presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders[57] – a co-sponsor of the 2015 New Columbia Admission Act – and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley support D.C statehood.[58] President-elect Joe Biden, also supports D.C. statehood.[59]

From the 1993 statehood failure through the failure of the 2009 House Voting Rights Act, neither statehood nor retrocession was a legislative priority by either party.[60][61] In 2014, Maryland's senators, both Democrats, co-sponsored a D.C. statehood bill,[60][61] then in May 2017, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate which led to the first hearings on the subject in years.[62] In February 2019, the House Democratic leadership put its support behind legislation to grant D.C. statehood.[63] Bill H.R. 1, which included a nonbinding expression of support, passed 234 to 193 in March 2019.[33]


The local D.C. Republican Party has been a long-standing supporter of voting rights for the District of Columbia.[64] However, Republicans nationally have often been steadfast in their opposition to D.C. statehood.[65] The 2016 Republican Party Platform advocated D.C. remain a district. The Platform stated statehood for D.C. can only be advanced by a constitutional amendment, saying that any other means would be 'invalid'. The Platform states the last constitutional amendment proposal was 'soundly rejected' by the states in 1976, and 'should not be revived'.[66]

In 2020, Republican President Donald Trump said Republicans oppose statehood because it would likely add two safe Democratic seats to the United States Senate.[61][67] Historically, District voters have overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates, with at least 80% of the votes going to the party in every presidential election since 1964.


The Libertarian Party of the District of Columbia, purportedly strongly supports D.C. becoming a state.[68]


The cause of D.C. statehood, is and always has been, a priority for D.C. Statehood Green Party.[69]

License plates[edit]

In November 2000, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles began issuing license plates bearing the slogan "Taxation without representation".[70] President Bill Clinton had these plates placed on the presidential limousines shortly before the end of his second term. However, President George W. Bush, in one of his first official acts as president, had the plates removed.[71] The usage of "taxation without representation" plates was restored by President Barack Obama shortly before his second-term inauguration.[72] President Donald Trump continued to use the plates, though he stated he had "no position" regarding statehood or representation for the District.[73] However, in an interview in 2020, Trump said D.C. statehood would "never happen."[74]


In a June 2020 Hill-HarrisX poll taken shortly before the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approved D.C. statehood, 48 percent of registered voters said they were in favor, while 52 percent were not, with a margin of error greater than ±3 percent.[75] A July 2019 Gallup poll found only 29% of Americans supported D.C. statehood, while 64% were opposed to the idea.[76][77]

A September 2014 poll by YouGov found that 49% of Americans opposed D.C. statehood, while only 27% supported it. 53% of Independents and 67% of Republicans opposed it, but only 33% of Democrats did. However, when asked if D.C. should be represented as voters in other states are, by a voting Representative and two Senators, 37% said yes and 31% said no.[78] Other polling from the 1990s showed stronger support. A 1999 poll showed that 46% of Americans would support statehood.[79]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "D.C. Law Library – Subchapter II. Statehood" (PDF). Council of the District of Columbia. March 10, 1981. Retrieved December 31, 2017.
  2. ^ Norton, Eleanor Holmes (January 3, 2019). "H.R.51 – 116th Congress (2019–2020): Washington, D.C. Admission Act". United States Congress. Retrieved September 19, 2019.
  3. ^ "State PVIs". The Cook Political Report. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
  4. ^ Hammons, W. R. "Partisan Voting Index (PVI) by State". Bill's List. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
  5. ^ District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007: Hearing Notes. DIANE publishing. March 14, 2007. p. 23. ISBN 978-1-4223-2085-3.
  6. ^ a b Forbes-Lindsay, C. H. (1908). Washington: The City and Seat of Government (PDF). Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Co. p. 110. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 17, 2015. Retrieved November 16, 2015.
  7. ^ "Statement on the subject of The District of Columbia Fair and Equal Voting Rights Acts" (PDF). American Bar Association. September 14, 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 25, 2008. Retrieved July 10, 2008.
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  9. ^ Hatch, Orrin (January 1, 1978). "Should the Capital Vote in Congress? A Critical Analysis of the Proposed D.C. Representation Amendment". Fordham Urban Law Journal. 7 (3): 479–539.
  10. ^ Congressional Record, 1805: 979–980.
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