When residents of the District of Columbia head to the polls this Election Day, they will be doing more than just voting for a new president: they will be answering questions that have the potential to determine the future of their city. An advisory referendum will appear on the ballot on November 8, a part of the “Bold Path to Statehood” plan introduced by Mayor Muriel Bowser and the New Columbia Statehood Commission last April. If the referendum passes, the DC council will start to petition Congress for DC statehood.
Since the founding of the city in 1790, residents of DC have lacked full voting representation in Congress. The District elects a non-voting Representative to the House but has almost no voice in the Senate. The 675,000 people who live in the city are unable to vote for the people writing the laws they are required to abide by, despite the fact that DC pays federal taxes and has a larger population than that of Vermont and Wyoming.
“Representation in Congress is the most basic premise of American democracy, and it’s denied to us,” says Daniel Solomon. Solomon is the Interim Executive Director of DC Vote, a nonprofit advocacy organization whose sole purpose is to gain full voting rights for the District. “Right now, Congress has no problem interfering in our local business, in our local government, controlling our budget, saying whether or not we can have regulations on handguns, whether we can fund abortions with local dollars. That would end if we were a state and had two US Senators and a voting Representative defending us,” says Solomon.
The New Columbia Statehood Commission is an independent agency of the DC government that was created in 2014 to coordinate DC’s statehood efforts. It is made up of Mayor Muriel Bowser, Representative Franklin Garcia, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Senators Paul Strauss and Michael D. Brown. The Senators are shadow Senators, meaning that they lobby Congress for full voting rights for District residents.
“[The Founders] were not very inclusive,” says Brown. “Democracy was an experiment and they weren’t quite sure yet what all-inclusive participation would mean. So they didn’t give women a vote. African Americans weren’t allowed to vote. Native Americans weren’t allowed to vote. But all those groups have now been brought into our political system. The only people still out there are the people from DC,” says Brown.
The United States is the only democracy in the world that denies full voting rights to their capital city. Last year, members of the New Columbia Statehood Commission were accepted into a UN organization called the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples’ Organization. “How crazy is that?” asks Brown. “The US is supposedly out spreading democracy around the world, yet now I have a say in the UN but I don’t have a say in my own Congress.”
According to Brown, obtaining statehood is the best way to change this. Unlike a Constitutional Amendment, statehood is irrevocable and is completely in compliance with the Constitution. The boundaries of New Columbia as outlined in the November referendum will not include what is officially referred to as the National Capital Service area (i.e the National mall, government buildings, the White House and the Capitol Building.) Instead, it will include all the areas surrounding it. “By doing that, we don’t mess with the Constitution: Congress can still be in control of the jurisdiction which they occupy: we would just create a new jurisdiction which they’re not in control of,” says Brown. He adds that because of this, DC becoming a state is in fact no more complicated than passing a law. “All it requires is a bill passed by both Houses of Congress by a simple majority, and signed by the President,” says Brown.
The District’s efforts towards statehood have been boosted by Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has made gaining representation in Congress one of her central initiatives as Mayor. Since 2014, she has been an active member of the New Columbia Statehood Commission and she has worked with them to achieve statehood by a method known as the Tennessee Plan. This plan was originally used by the territory of what is now Tennessee in 1796; six former territories have succeeded in gaining statehood by following their example, and the Commission hopes to add DC to that list. Senator Brown and his colleagues on the Commission have been working to meet the qualifications required by the plan: they’ve held community meetings in order to gather information to write a Constitution for New Columbia, they’ve fixed set boundaries for the new jurisdiction, and they’ve pushed for an advisory referendum on the November ballot. The referendum will ask DC residents four essentials questions: “ Do you want to become a state?,” “Do you ratify the state Constitution?,” “Do you approve of the boundaries?,” and “Do you agree to a representative form of government?”
“If DC answers yes to those four questions, then we’re going to go to Congress and the new administration to demand statehood,” says Brown. He acknowledges that this plan may not result in the desired outcome: Congress is under no legal obligation to grant statehood, even if the referendum results show overwhelming support. “The only obligation they have is their obligation to us as American citizens… this is what the country was founded on,” says Brown. And it appears that the current Congress often does not follow this obligation: in a 2013 referendum, District residents overwhelmingly supported the Budget Autonomy Act, which would give the DC government control over the city’s budget. Following the referendum, the Act went to Congress for approval, but the Act has been “avoided entirely due to maneuvering by House Republicans,” says Brown.
The Republican-held Congress has a strong incentive to continually deny DC voting rights: DC’s demographic is majority Democratic, and two more Democratic senators could have the potential to shift the party balance in the Senate towards Democratic control. Because of this, Brown stresses the importance of a nationwide movement behind the cause. “We can’t bestow statehood upon ourselves. We need the Senators in California and New York and New Jersey to vote for this,” says Brown. “And this is one of our problems: [DC voting rights] really doesn’t effect the people of other states. When you’re living in Maryland and calling your Senator, you’re calling because you want something done in Maryland! You’re not calling to say, ‘Gee, let’s help the people of DC.”
Brown says that if the referendum is passed, the next step for the District would be to convince the rest of the country that DC’s lack of representation is an injustice in need of remedification. A tough task lies ahead, but he firmly believes that it is possible. “This is a civil rights issue. Think about the civil rights issues that have come before: I’m sure in the early 1900’s people said, ‘Women will never get the vote.’ But they kept on trying, and trying, and they chained themselves to the White House fence, and it finally happened. You can say the same thing for African Americans,” says Brown. “Whether we think statehood is going to happen tomorrow or not, we just have to keep pushing for it.” •