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What Is DCWatch?
Hope and delusion—struggle for democracy in
DC’s Eternal Return:
Efforts to Pass
Constitutional Amendments to Expand Political Rights for Washington, DC
The text of this document is drawn from a chapter of "Hope and Delusion: Struggle
for Democracy in the District of Columbia,"
by Mark David Richards.
I revised this segment in June 2002.
The idea of amending the U.S. Constitution to grant D.C. citizens the
same citizenship rights as other Americans living in states was discussed
from the time the District of Columbia was formed and the problem of
having a disenfranchised people at the seat of government was recognized.
Discussion about passage of a Constitutional amendment was associated with
discussion of establishing a D.C. territorial government and legislature.
Congress established a limited home rule government early in Washington
City’s history—a home rule government that has never been a true local
self-government with judicial, legislative, and budgetary autonomy. Some
locals call the D.C. home rule government a "home fool"
government, and describe it as colonial in form.
At the same time Congress granted D.C. a limited home rule government,
it stripped D.C. citizens of their national voting rights by not providing
a mechanism by which to exercise those rights.
From the beginning, D.C.’s self-government goal has appeared to
conflict with its goal to have equal federal representation because some
appear willing to accept one without the other.
Residents often used the term "equal " to describe how they
wanted to be treated, compared to other Americans. D.C. residents have
made other proposals to remedy the problem, including retrocession of D.C.
land outside of the main federal areas to the ceding state and the
creation of a new state—New Columbia. The southwestern portion of D.C.
retroceded to Virginia in 1846. The statehood movement formed in the late
1960s and efforts to make D.C. a state continue today. In this paper, I
focus specifically on efforts to pass various forms of Constitutional
The idea of passing a Constitutional amendment to grant D.C. permanent
citizens voting rights in Congress was articulated by Constitutional
author Alexander Hamilton during the New York ratifying convention. It was
also suggested in 1800 by "Epaminondas" (Augustus Brevoort
Woodward), and was first mentioned on the floor of Congress in 1801 by
John Dennis of Maryland’s Eastern Shore (diGiacomantonio, 2000: 43-44).
To pass a Constitutional amendment is very difficult: two thirds of
both houses of Congress and it must be approved by three-fourths of the
States (38 of 50). The Constitution has been amended only 17 times
(counting the "Bill of Rights" amendments as one instance).
A D.C. citizen took a case for "no taxation without
representation" to the Supreme Court, and in 1820 the Supreme Court
ruled (Loughborough v. Blake) that District residents were liable
to taxation even through they were not represented in Congress (Wheaton,
1820: 317). The confrontation, nevertheless, caused Congress to increase
the power of the Washington City’s elected government (Diner, 1987: 11).
In 1831, President Andrew Jackson urged Congress to allow District
residents to elect a delegate to that body "with the same privileges
that are allowed to other territories of the United States:"
"I deem it my duty again to call your attention to the
condition of the District of Columbia. It was doubtless wise in the
framers of our Constitution to place the people of this District under
the jurisdiction of the general government, but to accomplish the
objects they had in view it is not necessary that this people should
be deprived of all the privileges of self-government. Independently of
the difficulty of inducing the representatives of distant states to
turn their attention to projects of laws which are not of the highest
interest to their constituents, they are not individually, nor in
Congress collectively, well qualified to legislate over the local
concerns of this District. Consequently its interests are much
neglected and the people are almost afraid to present their
grievances, lest a body in which they are not represented and which
feels little sympathy in their local relations should in its attempt
to make laws for them do more harm than good. … Is it not just to
allow them at least a delegate to Congress, if not a local
legislature, to make laws for the District, subject to the approval or
rejection of Congress? I earnestly recommend the extension to them of
every political right which their interests require and which may be
compatible with the Constitution." (Noyes, 1917: 71-72)
Most of the early Presidents reminded Congress that the District was
not represented in that body and encouraged attention to local interests
for that reason. For example, James Knox Polk of North Carolina,
inaugurated president on March 4, 1845, again reminded Congress that the
District had neither a state legislature nor representation in the
national legislature, and encouraged treating District citizens with a
"liberal and generous spirit:"
"The people of this District have no legislative body of their
own and must confide their local as well as their general interests to
representatives in whose election they have no voice and over whose
official conduct they have no control. Each member of the national
legislature should consider himself as their immediate representative
and should be the more ready to give attention to their interests and
wants because he is not responsible to them. I recommend that a
liberal and generous spirit may characterize your measures in relation
to them. I shall be ever disposed to show a proper regard for their
wishes and within constitutional limits shall at all times cheerfully
cooperate with you for the advancement of their welfare (Noyes, 1917:
When Congress consolidated Georgetown and Washington City and county
into a "territorial" government in February 21, 1871, it created
the position of non-voting delegate for the District who would be a member
of the House District committee (Green, 1962: 335-336). When it abolished
the "Territorial" government in 1874 and established a
three-member appointed commissioner government for the District, the
non-voting delegate position was abolished.
In 1888, Theodore Noyes, the son of the editor of the Star,
published a series on Congressional neglect of D.C. in which he argued for
a Constitutional amendment to give D.C. citizens representation to
Congress and members in the presidential Electoral College (Green, 1963:
26). Noyes proposed this amendment, he wrote in a Star editorial on
March 30, 1961, "as a compromise between strictly limited local
suffrage, whose frustrations and futilities the Star had observed for 22
years, and actual self-government, which would involve surrender of the
Nation’s control of its Capital" (Derthick, 1962: 73).
The Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred discussed the issue and a
notary gathered letters of local notables and did a comparative analysis
of D.C. to six other states. He sent a memorandum to Capitol Hill saying,
"They are unable to see why they should be excluded from
participation in the General Government any more than the people of State
capitals should be excluded from participation in state governments"
(Green, 1963: 26).
In May 1890, Republican Senator Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire offered
a Resolution on passing a Constitutional amendment to give representation
to D.C. in the two houses of Congress and in the Electoral College (Green,
1963: 26). The Senate committee to which it was referred declined to hold
hearings (Green, 1963: 26). Blair recalled how Rome had fallen after
violating its own principles (Lessoff, 1994: 199). The Senate committee to
which it was referred rejected it without holding hearings (Green, 1963:
26). Blair talked about the negative effects on young Washingtonians,
where "combinations and rings and syndicates which derive their
strength from unholy or indifferent relations to and with the
representatives of national power" (Green, 1963: 26). The Republican
Party ignored the topic, and the Democratic Party included a Home Rule
plank in its platform in 1892 that Constance Green described as
"flimsy at best, it remained purely decorative until discarded"
(Green, 1963: 28).
After 1909, although opposition to Home Rule remained strong for fear
of a reduced federal payment, full voting representation in the House,
Senate, and Electoral College received increasingly widespread attention
(Green, 1963: 185). In 1909, Chief Justice Stafford from the District
Supreme Court, in speaking at a public dinner for President William H.
Taft, in a reference to the fear of allowing blacks to vote, said:
"Strip men of the ballot and you take away from society the
most powerful inducement that can prompt selfish human nature to
educate and elevate its helpless and its poor. Shall we say we fear
the suffrages of ignorance and vice … that could not last a
generation if we did our duty by our fellow-men? … Never until the
men of wealth and education have spent their last surplus dollar and
exhausted the ingenuity of their brains in the effort to make their
fellow-men worthy to be sharers in the government, never until then
will they have a right to hide behind an excuse like that"
(Green, 1963: 185-186).
By 1915, it was increasingly clear that rule of the District by
congressional committee was more disadvantageous than advantageous (Green,
1963: 186). But the remedy was not as clear. Local elites, leery of
elected self-government, thought the best remedy would be national
representation, but many in Congress opposed and called the amendment an
effort at "virtual statehood" (Green, 1963: 186).
Historically, the most controversial aspect of a D.C. voting rights
amendment was the right to vote in the Senate. Opposition related to the
fact that only States had Senators; they were not popularly elected until
1913 when the Seventeenth Amendment provided for the popular vote of
By 1916, the money and interest owed the federal government by the
District was paid off, and funded debt was reduced to 4,000,000 (Green,
1963: 183). Undervalued real estate was reassessed, resulting in more
revenues and pleasing members of Congress (Green, 1963: 184). Tourism
became the third largest revenue-generating business in the District,
after government and real estate (Green, 1963: 175). That year, white
District residents formed the Citizens’ Joint Committee on National
Representation for the District of Columbia, composed of about 30 local
organizations (Green, 1963: 254), including:
- The Chamber of Commerce,
- The Board of Trade,
- The Merchants’ and
- The Central Labor Union,
- The D.C. Bar Association,
- The Federation of Women’s
- The Department of the D.C.
Veterans of Foreign Wars,
- The Federation of Citizens’
Associations (composed of 54 sectional citizens’ associations),
- The Oldest Inhabitants
- The Monday Evening Club, the
Real Estate Brokers Association, and
- The 20th Century Club
According to literature published by the Committee, about 30 national
organizations also endorsed the organization’s objectives to secure
approval of a Constitutional amendment to grant D.C. citizens the right
to vote in the Senate, House, and Electoral College, with the same
rights before the Federal Courts as enjoyed by the residents of the
States. National groups included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the
American Federation of Labor, the League of Women Voters, Veterans of
Foreign Wars of the U.S., and a number of state organizations.
In May and June 1917, resolutions offered in the House and Senate
proposed an amendment authorizing Congress to grant District residents
representation in Congress, but this took back burner as the U.S.
entered World War I in 1917, and race riots broke out in Washington and
other U.S. cities (Green, 1963: 253).
In 1922, Theodore Noyes, Chairman of the Citizens’ Joint Committee
on National Representation for the District of Columbia, testified
before the Committee of the District of Columbia in the Senate, arguing
for the amendment. He argued that the "three political subdivisions
of the United States under the Constitution are (1) States, (2)
Territories—that is, incipient States—and (3) the District
constituting the seat of government of the United States. Now, the
Constitution as it stands either gives or empowers Congress to give
national representation to the first two of these parts," and
"When our amendment is ratified this section will be rounded out
and perfected, and the power of Congress to grant national
representation will be equitably extended to all three of the parts into
which the United States was in the beginning thus in effect
In November 1928 election, the Committee ran an ad in The Evening
Star saying election day was Washington’s "Day of
Humiliation," and printed a copy of the Constitutional amendment
pending before Congress "to admit the residents of the District of
Columbia to the status of citizens of a State for the purpose of
representation in Congress and the Electoral College." Here is the
"The Congress shall have power to admit to the status of
citizens of a State the residents of the District constituting the
seat of Government of the United States, created by Article I,
section 8, for the purpose of representation in the Congress and
among the electors of President and Vice President for the purpose
of suing and being sued in the courts of the United States, under
provisions of Article III, section 2.
"When the Congress shall exercise this power, the residents
of such District shall be entitled to elect one or two Senators as
determined by the Congress, Representative in the House according to
their numbers as determined by the decennial enumeration, and
presidential electors equal in number to their aggregate
representation in the House and Senate.
"The Congress shall provide by law the qualifications of
voters and the time and manner of choosing the Senator or Senators,
the Representative or Representatives and the electors herein
"The Congress shall have the power to make all laws which
shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the
On March 2, 1929, Theodore W. Noyes gave a WMAL nationwide radio
address and asked, "Will not every red-blooded American who hears
me tonight respond hopefully and vigorously to the District’s appear
for political equality? How long, O Americans, must we of Washington be
compelled to say and to sing: ‘My county, ‘tis of thee Not land of
liberty, For District folks; Where rights for which the fathers died Are
now denied and crucified, Mock’d at as jokes’?" (Melder, 1997:
423). In March 1929, Historian Wilhelmus Bryan wrote:
"The principle of taxation without representation that
stirred the fathers of our Colonial and Federal governments, still
is potent in the present day with many District residents, because
they are under the government of Congress and have no representation
in that body. To cure that defect or injustice or outrage of human
rights—the rule of tyranny, as some phrase it—an amendment to
the Federal Constitution is necessary, giving the District
representation in the Senate and in the House and in the Electoral
College. Such an amendment is now being actively advocated. Because
the District is not a state, as the constitution now reads, it
cannot have representation in Congress or have a part in
presidential elections, nor can a District resident sue or be sued
in a Federal court. There is a further restriction in the political
life of the District resident which the proposed Constitutional
amendment will not remove. He has no part in the choice of the local
government. No one, as far as I know, has pointed out how he can.
Aside from the Supreme Court verdict that Federal supremacy cannot
be alienated, how can there be a real local government in the
District which gives an adequate and workable place to Federal
interests arising from the District being the seat of the national
government" (Bryan, 1932: 58).
The drive for Congressional voting rights and Home Rule led to many
articles and political comics. The Citizens’ Joint Committee on
National Representation for the District of Columbia prepared "A
Souvenir of the Inauguration of a President of the United States from
Whose Election Half-a-Million American Citizens Were Barred by
Constitutional Disenfranchisement" for Capital City guests to
President Roosevelt’s Inauguration on March 4, 1933.
Proponents argued that District citizens were "fully fit for
national representation," and pointed out that D.C. citizens had
"risked life and shed their blood in every national war." They
pointed out that the amendment did not reduce the power of Congress in
respect to the Capital, but added a new power—the power to grant
representation in the House, Senate, and Electoral College to resident
of D.C., like the power they had to grant statehood. They said the
amendment did not propose the admission of D.C. into the Union as a
sovereign State, and did not propose ending the "10 miles
square" provision. They pointed out that, as a suitor in U.S.
courts, D.C. had a lower standing than an alien.
Some citizens worked against the amendment. The Ten Miles Square Club
and the Dupont Circle Citizens’ Association ran a newspaper
advertisement with the headline "City-State Opposed." The ad
"The weakest point in the system of government in this
country is generally admitted to be in the rule of large cities. We
are here free from the corruption of machine government, which is so
objectionable in large cities. The proposed amendment provides the
foundation for the establishment of a machine in the local
government in the District—that is to say, power without visible
and recognized responsibility. Moreover, the proposed amendment (to
create a city-state) would undoubtedly be a first step on the way to
an extension of local self-government which proved so unsatisfactory
(in Washington) in the past. We should not repeat that error. We are
far better off now which the commissioners answerable to no one but
the President of the United States for the faithful performance of
their duties, than if the District Senators and Representative were
able to claim that they should be listened to. The commissioners
cannot well serve two masters. A representative local government was
installed here in 1871. The city soon got in the hands of a ring and
the government was so bad that Congress took away the suffrage for
the good of the people and resumed control. Each succeeding Congress
and all Presidents have vigorously opposed change from the existing
form of government since the date of its establishment."
The Ten Miles Square Club also produced brochures, claiming that
"there is no urgent demand for the amendment by the citizens of the
District," and said "This proposed amendment is the most
dangerous and revolutionary amendment ever offered for the serious
consideration of Congress… it might, if enacted into law, ultimately
destroy the Nation… the precedent of a City-State once established
would change our historical concept of what may constitute a
State." They advised that to pass the amendment would
"inevitably arouse the ambitions of other cities to be created into
City-States." The Club said, "The President of the United
States is the Mayor of Washington City and Congress its Common
Council." They argued that they are the representatives of
Washington citizens, and when they move to Washington they quickly
identify with the local life. The pointed out that D.C. is only 60
square miles, or 798,000 acres—compared to the smallest state that is
1,248 square miles, or 150,000,000 acres, and called those proposing the
amendment "a group of political idealists."
In 1934, pieces of the President Roosevelt’s "Organization
Report" to reorganize the District government began to surface in
the local press (Green, 1963: 428). Among other things, it proposed to
allowed the District to elect a non-voting Delegate to the House, but
Congress would retain a veto over all legislative acts (Green, 1963:
About a dozen local government reorganization plans emerged between
1934 and 1940 (Green, 1963: 431). The District Suffrage League felt the
many proposals gave the impression that District citizens didn’t know
what they wanted. In April 1938, a Citizens’ Conference of 271 local
organizations financed a plebiscite with two questions—"[D]o you
want to vote for President and for members of Congress from the District
of Columbia?, and Do you want to vote for officials of your own city
government in the District?" (Green, 1963: 432). The District
Suffrage League set up voting places in thirty-eight public schools, and
on April 29th dressed up like Paul Revere and paraded in the
streets to publicize the event (Green, 1963: 432). Ninety-five thousand,
five hundred and thirty-eight people voted on April 30th,
most of whom had never voted before (Green, 1963: 433). Overwhelming
majorities voted in support of both congressional voting rights and Home
Rule (Melder, 1997: 425).
Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas, chairman of the House District
Committee, agreed with many local citizens that residents should have
voting rights (Green, 1963: 429). In 1938, he told the Columbia
Historical Society that:
"It is apparent that Congress intended to change the
political status of the District in some degree from the beginning…
In waging this commendable war against a form of autocracy
peculiarly repugnant to patriotic Americans you will find that our
greatest enemy is indifference. Therefore, I charge you, never cease
to agitate your cause; spread the fire of your zeal throughout the
city and kindle the dormant sentiment of the Nation. If anything
ever was worth fighting for it is national representation for the
District of Columbia. And I am confident that finally your campaign
will be victorious, as it well deserves to be. In my State, if its
2,000,000 inhabitants were told that they could have no voice in the
Government which they are taxed to support, I know what would
quickly happen. An army would be organized, and it would march
across the plains to the Capital of the country and enforce its
rights. Of course, I do not recommend for you an appeal to arms. But
you must all be aggressive to secure for yourselves that which is
In 1939, Rep. Haton W. Sumners of Texas introduced a resolution (H.J.
Res. 257) that gave Congress the power to provide national
representation for the District "no greater than that of he people
of the States" (Thompson, 1965:13). The House Judiciary Committee
favorably reported the resolution after it was amended to give D.C.
representation in the House only, and both majority and minority leaders
of both houses supported it (Thompson, 1965:13). The bill died in the
Rules Committee related to provisions that would have enabled Congress
to delegate much control of local affairs to D.C. residents, Home Rule
Most opposition related to making the District too much like a State,
which would threaten federal security and might encourage other cities
and Territories to demand similar rights (Thompson, 1965:14). In 1943,
Rep. Summers authored and Senator Arthur Capper co-sponsored the
following compromise amendment thought to address Congressional
The Congress shall have the power to provide that there shall be
in the Congress and among the electros of President and Vice
President members elected by the people of the District constituting
the seat of Government of the United States, in such numbers and
with such powers as the Congress shall determine. All legislation
hereunder shall be subject to amendment and repeal. (Thompson,
In 1955, Congress passed a D.C. election law (P.L. 376, 84th
Congress) that established a three-member bipartisan board to administer
elections; established procedures for registration, nominations, and
voting; provided for the election of national committee men and women,
delegates to presidential nominating conventions, and local party
officials as determined by the parties (Derthick, 1962:75). The main
effect was to allow public funding of party elections (Derthick,
Early in 1955, Rep. Joel T. Broyhill of Virginia proposed another
amendment idea. He proposed to split the previous amendment idea apart,
one for representation in the Electoral College, one for representation
in Congress (Thompson, 1965:15). Broyhill had noticed that there was
little opposition to D.C. representation in the Electoral College, and
thought his approach would be the "obvious and simple way" to
get an amendment passed (Thompson, 1965:15). The Evening Star
opposed the proposal on grounds that "a straight line is the
shortest distance between two points" (Thompson, 1965:15).
Supporters of an voting rights amendment for D.C., including The
Evening Star, were at odds with Home Rule supporters, including The
Washington Post, the League of Women Voters, and the Democratic
Central Committee (Thompson, 1965:17). Home Rule supporters were
suspicious that the push for an amendment was a tactic to detract from
Home Rule efforts. There was a clear and explicit understanding that
resistance to Home Rule was related to D.C.’s African American
majority. The Board of Trade, the most vocal opponent of Home Rule, had
adopted a policy in favor of an amendment for national representation
for D.C. in 1916. The Republican State Committee held an opinion between
the two blocs—it had supported Home Rule, but associated with Board of
Trade members and conservative interests, which called its commitment
into question with Home Rule supporters (Thompson, 1965:17).
A Washington Post reporter summarized the Home Rule bloc’s
opinion about an passing an amendment without granting D.C. Home Rule:
We favor "the whole package of voting rights," because
"you either believe in democracy or you don’t" (Thompson,
1965:18). They felt Home Rule should come first because it only required
the passage of legislation, a task that would be easier than passing an
amendment. Mr. Sturgis Warner, an attorney, was a leader of the Home
Rule movement, which had been an active movement since 1946 (Thompson,
In 1959, D.C. residents were actively pressing Congress for Home
Rule. On July 16th, Senator Francis Case of South Dakota
introduced a resolution for D.C. voting rights in the Senate, but only
fifteen Senators supported it, in part because it had not gone through a
committee (Thompson, 1965:23). Home Rule supporters called his proposal
"a tactic to divert attention from the fight over how the city
government should be run" (Thompson, 1965:23). They were taken by
surprise at the events that were to follow.
In 1959, when Senator Spessard Holland of Florida and a group of
Southern Senators proposed a Constitutional amendment to abolish the
poll tax, Benjamin McKelway, an Evening Star editor, wrote an
editorial (August 10) entitled "Amend the Amendment"
(Thompson, 1965:24). He suggested that Congress modify the amendment to
add voting rights for D.C. (Derthick, 1962: 74). McKelway recognized
that the poll tax bill could be a "vehicle" to move a D.C.
voting rights bill out of Congress.
Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia entered the editorial into
the Congressional Record (Thompson, 1965:25). Senator Kenneth Keating of
New York announced that he was considering offering an amendment to
Senator Holland’s resolution during hearings, and he received
immediate support from Senator Estes Kefauver from Tennessee whose
Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments of the Judiciary would hold
hearings on the poll tax bill (Thompson, 1965:25). Members of the House
District Committee expressed their support during their hearings on D.C.
Home Rule (Thompson, 1965:25).
Congress was deadlocked over Civil Rights legislation, and Senate
Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson said such legislation had to be passed in
that session (Thompson, 1965:28). Informed sources said there was
support "across the aisle" for giving Washingtonians the right
to vote as part of Civil Rights legislation, perhaps as a
non-controversial compromise on Civil Rights and as a way to reduce the
pressure for Home Rule (Thompson, 1965:28). Hearings opened on S.J. Res.
138 on September 9, 1959 and the bill proceeded through Congress. On
February 2, 1960, the Senate passed by 63 to 25 an anti-poll tax bill
that included D.C. voting rights, taking local groups by surprise
(Thompson, 1965:30). For the first time, a D.C. voting rights bill would
reach the floor of Congress.
D.C. officials officially reactivated The Citizens Joint Committee on
National Representation on February 18th, 1960 to prepare to
support the bill in House hearings (Thompson, 1965:31).
The House killed the anti-poll tax amendment and kept the D.C. voting
rights bill. Subcommittee No. 5 of the Committee on the Judiciary of the
House of Representatives (8th Congress, 2nd
Session) heard testimony on House Joint Resolution 529, "proposing
an amendment to the Constitution of the Untied States granting
representation in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral
College to the District of Columbia," on April 6th and 7th,
1960. D.C. groups testified unanimous support for the proposal, and
encourage the Congress to expand the bill further (Thompson, 1965:32).
Commissioner Robert E. McLaughlin, President of the Board of
Commissioners (D.C.’s municipal chief executive) sent Rep. Celler a
letter (April 6, 1960) asking whether the language of the bill calling
for D.C. delegates to the House of Representatives was intended to mean voting
members. McLaughlin offered language spelling out that D.C. would have
two Senators and one or more members of the House based on its
population. McLaughlin wrote "the Commissioners cannot endorse it
[the amendment] in the present form." The bill moved to the full
Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Emanuel Celler of New York.
The Young Democratic Club of D.C. passed the following resolution
calling for citizens of D.C. to be treated equal to citizens of States:
"The Young Democratic Club of The District of Columbia
commends the efforts of the House Judiciary Committee and other
members of Congress for their efforts in fighting for voting rights
for the citizens of the District of Columbia. We believe that all
rights and privileges granted the citizens of the District of
Columbia should be on the same basis as the corresponding rights
granted to all American citizens, although we do not believe it wise
to make the District of Columbia a sovereign state.
In accordance with this principle we call for immediate passage
by Congress of a Constitutional Amendment granting us presidential
electros on the identical population basis used for all other
American citizens, and passage in the next Congress of a
Constitutional Amendment granting us voting members in both Houses
The Star surveyed the Judiciary Committee and found that likely
support for a bill that included House representation (Thompson,
1965:34). It also surveyed the full House and found it would come up
short of the necessary two-thirds vote if the bill included House
Representation (Thompson, 1965:34). The House representation portion was
deleted from the final bill, as it was though a non-voting delegate
position could be created by simple statute (Thompson, 1965:34). Rep.
Celler said, "This committee sought to achieve plateaus one at a
time on the way to the summit," and suggested another amendment
could be passed in the future for Congressional voting rights (Thompson,
1965:35). As support for the bill was so great, parliamentary procedure
was used to avoid sending the bill into the Rules Committee and directly
to the Senate for a floor vote (Thompson, 1965:35).
There was little opposition to Presidential voting rights for D.C.,
but there was not enough support for voting rights in Congress. So the
bill was reduced in the House to the lowest common denominator to assure
passage through Congress and ratification. Some in Congress wanted
nothing that could imply statehood, so Chairman Celler modified D.C.’s
electoral votes to be limited to the number held by the least populated
state rather than equal to states. Here is the Amendment:
Twenty-third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Section 1. The District constituting the seat of Government of
the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may
A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the
whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which
the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event
more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to
those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the
purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be
electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District
and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by
In the Report of the Committee on the Judiciary (June 9, 1960), Mr.
Celler recommended passage of the bill. The report said:
"The purpose of this proposed constitutional amendment is to
provide the citizens of the District of Columbia with appropriate
rights of voting in national elections for President and Vice
President of the United States. It would permit District citizens to
elect Presidential electors who would be in addition to the electros
from the States and who would participate in electing the President
and Vice President.
The District of Columbia with more than 800,000 people, has a
greater number of persons than the population of each of 13 of our
States. District citizens have all the obligations of citizenship,
including the payment of Federal taxes, of local taxes, and service
in our Armed Forces. They have fought and died in every U.S. war
since the District was founded. Yet, they cannot now vote in
national elections because the Constitution has restricted that
privilege to citizens who reside in States. The resultant
constitutional anomaly of imposing all the obligations of
citizenship without the most fundamental of its privileges, will be
removed by this proposed constitutional amendment."
The Report discussed retrocession and statehood, but argued that both
proposals posed serious constitutional questions. It argued that the
proposed amendment would have "minimum impact," thereby
preserving the original concept of the Constitution. It said the
amendment was not related to Home Rule, which was a completely separate
issue. It said the amendment, would, in fact, "perpetuate
recognition of the unique status of the District as the seat of Federal
Government under the exclusive legislative control of Congress."
"It would not make the District of Columbia a State. It
would not give the District of Columbia any other attributes of a
State or change the constitutional powers of the Congress to
legislate with respect to the District of Columbia and to prescribe
its forms of government. It would not authorize the District to have
representation in the Senate or the House of Representatives. It
would not alter the total number of presidential electors from the
States, the total number of Representatives in the House of
Representatives, or the apportionment of electros or Representatives
among the States. It would, however, perpetuate recognition of the
unique status of the District as the seat of Federal Government
under the exclusive legislative control of Congress."
The House passed the resolution for the 23rd Amendment on
June 15, 1960. The Senate agreed to the bill on June 16, 1960.
Most D.C. residents united in favor of the Amendment, including The
Washington Post. The national campaign was largely bi-partisan and
political differences were largely put aside. Republican National
Chairman Thurston Morton and Chairman Shipley of the District Republican
Central Committed supported the amendment (Derthick, 1962:74), as did
Democratic National Chairman, Senator Henry Jackson (Thompson, 1965:55).
D.C.’s commissioners passed a resolution in support of the measure,
which they sent to every State capital (Thompson, 1965:55).
D.C. officials led the drive for the amendment. In December, they
formed a task force to coordinate the national ratification drive,
called the Citizens Committee for the Presidential Vote. The Citizens
Committee was an activity of the Citizens Joint Committee (Thompson,
1965:50). It was led by Attorney F. Elwood Davis (Derthick, 1962:74).
Herbert Gill, a retired Washington Gas Light executive, was executive
director (Thompson, 1965:51).
The effort was in part financed by a $25,000 trust left by the late Star
editor and lifelong proponent of an amendment, Theodore W. Noyes. The
Washington Post supported the effort, but the Star was the
primary proponent of the amendment proposal (Derthick, 1962:74).
The Citizens Committee set up headquarters at 1218 Connecticut Avenue
NW. It identified three issues they needed to address to achieve
ratification (Thompson, 1965:50):
- National education—People
in the nation did not know D.C. residents could not vote for
President. An information campaign would be needed.
- Planning information—Each
state has its own procedure for ratification and timetables.
Intelligence would be needed to develop a strategic plan.
- Strategic plan—Each
legislature is motivated by different issues and moved by
different opinion leaders. A plan to arouse and maintain interest,
with careful follow-up to avoid technical errors, was needed.
The Citizens Committee formed a field organization that was formed of
a political activities section and a non-political activities section to
develop and encourage local efforts (Thompson, 1965:51). The
non-political activities section was led by Timothy J. May, a local
lawyer who coordinated with groups like the Jaycees, the Board of Trade,
and the League of Women’s Voters (Thompson, 1965:51). The League
activated chapters across the nation (Derthick, 1962:74). The local
Jaycees set up a committee of six, each responsible for about five
States (Thompson, 1965:53). They asked each state Jaycee State president
to establish a liaison in each State capital, a contact person who could
act as a problem-solver (Thompson, 1965:53).
The political activities section, led by Mr. Sturgis Warner,
coordinated activities of D.C.’s political parties with national party
organizations (Thompson, 1965:51). Warner’s role was to decide on
strategy, timing, and contact problems related to influencing state
legislatures; he led a volunteer ‘task force’ of eight people, each
of which monitored progress in four to eight states (Thompson, 1965:51).
Warner worked to gain support from State political leaders. He made
in-person telephone calls to the most important leaders, followed by a
polite letter requesting assistance, with a "respectful"
informative brochure (Thompson, 1965:53). "Always follow up"
was the rule (Thompson, 1965:53).
The Citizens Committee conduced an extensive study of every State,
with a list "showing the opening date of the session of every State
legislature, and whether or not the session was annual or biennial"
(Thompson, 1965:52). Some states will automatically consider amendments,
while others require the Governor or a legislative leader to make a
request. The Committee developed a fact sheet about every State,
including the date the bill had to be introduced by; who would introduce
the bill and that person’s political association, the Governor’s
position, the committee where the bill had been referred and its
leadership, action taken by committees and the legislature, and press
clips (Thompson, 1965:53).
The Committee was aware of research showing that most amendments pass
rapidly or do not pass at all, therefore the moved rapidly to take
advantage of what they perceived to be a supportive political
environment for the amendment (Thompson, 1965:53). The Committee
developed a "model State resolution" which it shared with
state leaders (Thompson, 1965:53).
The main argument used in support of the amendment was that the cause
was just. Some argued defeat would become cold war propaganda for the
Soviet Union (Diner, 1987: 49). Findlaw http://caselaw.findlaw.com/data/Constitution/amendment23/#annotations
''The purpose of this. . . constitutional amendment is to provide
the citizens of the District of Columbia with appropriate rights of
voting in national elections for President and Vice President of the
United States. It would permit District citizens to elect
Presidential electors who would be in addition to the electors from
the States and who would participate in electing the President and
''The District of Columbia, with more than 800,000 people, has a
greater number of persons than the population of each of 13 of our
States. District citizens have all the obligations of citizenship,
including the payment of Federal taxes, of local taxes, and service
in our Armed Forces. They have fought and died in every U.S. war
since the District was founded. Yet, they cannot now vote in
national elections because the Constitution has restricted that
privilege to citizens who reside in States. The resultant
constitutional anomaly of imposing all the obligations of
citizenship without the most fundamental of its privileges will be
removed by the proposed constitutional amendment. . .
''[This] . . . amendment would change the Constitution only to
the minimum extent necessary to give the District appropriate
participation in national elections. It would not make the District
of Columbia a State. It would not give the District of Columbia any
other attributes of a State or change the constitutional powers of
the Congress to legislate with respect to the District of Columbia
and to prescribe its form of government. . . . It would, however,
perpetuate recognition of the unique status of the District as the
seat of Federal Government under the exclusive legislative control
of Congress.'' (H.R. Rep. No. 1698, 86th Cong., 2d Sess. 1, 2
Congress had only passed the 23rd Amendment on June 16,
1960, and it was ratified by 39 states—one more than necessary—by
March 29, 1961 (Diner, 1987: 50). Hawaii (which had become a state in
August 1959) was the first state to ratify the amendment on June 23,
1960. The Star commented (June 20, 1960), "Apparently the
only issue was whether the Democratic House or the Republican Senate
would vote first to ratify" (Thompson, 1965:57). Representative
Inouye sent the House side the necessary information before Republican
Governor Quinn received official notice of the amendment's passage from
the General Services Administration (GSA), so they won the contest
Martha Derthick reports a comment by Grace Bassett in The Evening
Star that the 286 days in which the amendment was ratified was
"two days less than the time taken to repeal prohibition" (Derthick,
1962:73). The only amendment that was ratified in less time (204 days) was
the 12th Amendment, passed in 1804 (Thompson, 1965:69).
The 23rd Amendment was only approved by one Southern state—Tennessee. Ten southern states took no action at all. Arkansas rejected
the proposal. Steven
J. Diner reported in "Democracy, Federalism, and the Governance of
the Nation’s Capital: 1790-1974," that Southern opposition was
stemmed from a belief that passage would advance Civil Rights for African
Americans, an explicitly racist fear (Diner, 1987: 50).
Attorney George LaRoche argues that this amendment was the first to
explicitly make certain citizens unequal to others in the Constitution:
"When the Constitution was first ratified, it framed a
government for (basically) three identified groups of people: ‘the
people of the states,’ Indians, and slaves. Of these, the
constitution did not distinguish any difference between the people of
the states and Indians, but simply named them as classes in relation
to the government. Slaves, however, were defined in the Constitution
as 3/5ths of free persons (mostly, ‘people of the states’).
With the 13th Amendment, this distinction was eliminated. That doesn't
mean there were no ‘classes’ and inferior classes in America, but
that the Constitution didn't define any. This changed with the 23rd
Amendment, which defined the residents of the District as having no
more say in picking the President than the people of the smallest
state, which is to say, irrespective of the absolute numbers, D.C.
citizens are pegged to the smallest group of ‘others,’ who are
necessarily superior for they are counted by sheer numbers. The
definition is in the Constitution; part of it, and it's used as an
argument now that D.C. citizens cannot be ‘better.’"
With the ratification, District citizens were granted a limited
right to vote for president – the first time they could vote in nearly a
century. In the event that no candidate for President has a majority or
there is a tie vote, the Twelfth Amendment provides that the House shall
choose the President. Because D.C. does not have voting members in
Congress, D.C. would not be included in that decision. Samuel H. Still,
Legislative Attorney of the Legislative Reference Service of The Library
of Congress wrote an opinion to the House Committee on the Judiciary on
June 14, 1960 saying that because of the language "they shall be
considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice
President, to be electors appointed by a State" D.C. would be
able "to participate in this choice should the District at some
further date be granted Representation in the House."
Anthony Thompson reported in "The Story of the 23rd
Amendment" that between the time when an amendment was first
introduced in Congress 160 years earlier, in 1890, until the passage of
the 23rd Amendment, 65 comparable amendments were introduced,
of which subcommittees of Congress held hearings on ten. Ten were
reported, three favorably (Thompson, 1965:38). The rest were locked in the
Judiciary Committees (Derthick, 1962:73).
Thompson attributed the successful passage of the amendment most of all
to the unity of local supporters; to excellent organization and issue
management, and to the compromises that had scaled the amendment down to
be a limited one for which political support existed and could be
leveraged (Thompson, 1965:69).
Ironically, the success of the amendment also related to the national
climate and national Civil Rights pressures. Southerners were trying to
pass an Amendment to end all poll taxes as a way to avoid a more serious
national voting rights bill. The 23rd Amendment was a
compromise accepted by Civil Rights opponents because it could stave off
other Civil Rights legislation.
Richard M. Nixon was elected president in 1969, and like Truman,
Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, he supported D.C. Home Rule and voting
rights (Diner, 1987: 56). Nixon said, "The District’s citizens
should not be expected to pay taxes for a government which they have no
part in choosing – or to bear the full burdens of citizenship without
the full rights of citizens." Nixon advanced the cause by
establishing a "state level" court system (since 1801 it had
been combined with federal), providing for a Delegate to Congress, and
establishing the Nelson Commission to study local governance (Diner, 1987:
The Senate had passed a bill in 1969, but the House narrowed it to
studying the organization and efficiency of the District government and
the election of a non-voting delegate to Congress, which the Senate
accepted (Diner, 1987: 58). The District of Columbia Election Act of 1970
granted D.C. the same rights in Congress as American Samoa, Guam, Puerto
Rico, and the Virgin Islands (an officially recognized representative
without voting rights). Walter Fauntroy was elected as non-voting delegate
and became an advocate for Home Rule and voting rights on Capital Hill
(Diner, 1987: 58). The Delegate could not vote on the floor of the House,
but could serve in committee in writing laws and accumulate committee
seniority (Diner, 1987: 58).
In 1977, President Carter announced his support for full voting rights
for D.C. in Congress. Vice President Walter Mondale said, "We believe
there is no justification for denying citizens equal representation at the
federal level because they happen to reside in the District of
Columbia" (The Evening Star, September 21, 1977).
In 1978, Congress approved—with a bipartisan two-thirds majority in
each house—Twenty-seventh Amendment to grant D.C. two Senators, voting
rights in the House based on population, the number of presidential
electors commensurate with population, and the right to participate in the
ratification of Constitutional amendments (Diner, 1987: 62). The D.C.
Voting Representation Amendment passed the Senate by 67 to 32 in August,
one vote more than required for a two-thirds majority. Robert Dole, Barry
Goldwater, and Strom Thurmond supported it as a simple matter of American
democracy (Diner, 1987: 62). The bill stipulated that the amendment had to
be ratified by 38 states within seven years.
Proposed 27th Amendment to the
Joint Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the
Constitution to Provide for Representation of the District of Columbia
Section 1. For purposes of representation in the Congress, election
of the President and Vice President, and article V of the is
Constitution, the District constituting the seat of government of the
United States shall be treated as though it were a State.
Section 2. The exercise of the rights and powers conferred under this
article shall be by the people of the District constituting the seat of
government, and as shall be provided by Congress.
Section 3. The twenty-third article of amendment to the Constitution
of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 4. This article shall be inoperative, unless it shall have
been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of
three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of
The amendment cleared the Senate and went to the states on August 22nd.
Although New Jersey and Ohio ratified in the first year, reception in the
states was nowhere like the women’s Equal Rights Amendment of 1972,
which passed 30 states in its first year.
Republican Senator Robert Dole said, "The Republican Party
supported D.C. voting rights because it was just, and in justice we could
do nothing else" (Drawn from flier produced by D.C. Republican
Councilmember Carol Schwartz.) Republican Senator Howard Baker said,
"We simply cannot continue to deny American citizens their right to
equal representation in the national government… this basic right is a
bedrock of our Republic that cannot be overturned" (Drawn from flier
produced by D.C. Republican Councilmember Carol Schwartz.)
But Senator Edward Kennedy had commented during the Senate debate that
the opposition to the bill would stem from D.C.’s "four toos"—too
black, too liberal, too urban, and too Democratic," and the later
discussions proved him mostly right.
The Washington Post polled Americans about the amendment, and
reported (September 26, 1978) that Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana,
Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah,
Virginia, and Wyoming were unlikely to ratify. Nine of these states were
among those who did not ratify the Equal Rights Amendment for women. Three
had populations smaller than D.C. Larry Williams, the Republican candidate
for U.S. Senate in Montana, said, "All we need in the federal
government is more liberal Eastern urban senators and congressmen to tell
Montanans how we ought to live and think." He said ratification would
result in D.C. representatives who would vote against increased farm
prices and for more wildernesses. "The next thing we’ll have is gun
control if it keeps going," he said.
Conservative commentator, George F. Will, wasted no time in pointing
out what he considered the deficiencies of the amendment. In "The
D.C. Vote Stampede," he chastised legislatures for acting too hastily
and not recognizing that the issue was a Constitutional issue, not a
racial one. He pointed out that a California representative had argued
this was "a black issue."
Will argued, based on the notion that the Constitution provides for
three kinds of entities: states, territories, and the District of
Columbia, that it would be proper for the District to have the full weight
of their vote in the Electoral College and a vote in the House, but not in
the Senate, because Senators must come from states, which represent
geographical regions with diverse interests. D.C., he said, was a city of
moderate size, and D.C. Senators would be the only two representing no
rural interests whatever. "So state legislatures with strong rural
representation will be reluctant to ratify the proposed amendment, which
would dilute their Senate power even more seriously than it would dilute
the power of other states. That is not the most elevated reason for doing
the right thing, but rejecting the proposed amendment’s approach to
District representation is the right thing to do."
Constitutional lawyer, Professor Stephen A. Saltzburg of the University
of Virginia Law School, said "To be candid, I find this argument to
be nonsense… Nothing in the language of this article states that the
Constitution cannot be amended to give entities other than states voting
power in the Senate. All that is required is that a state have an equal
vote. If the District is given two senators, no state is in an unequal
position when compared with any other state or with the District" (The
Washington Post, September 18, 1978). Charles Alan Wright of the
University of Texas said, "It seems to me that the clear purpose of
that clause was to ensure that the Great Compromise would not be undone
and that representation in the Senate would not be put on the basis of
population. That purpose is not compromised by allowing the District to
have two senators any more than it is when a new state is admitted."
Will pointed out what this author considers the most important flaw of
"As regards the amending process, note that under the law
granting the District ‘Home Rule,’ the city council remains an
agent of Congress, subject to Congress’s veto. That is, the law is
consistent with the Constitution’s provision that Congress shall ‘exercise
exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever’ over the District.
But what this means is that were the city council to function as the
equivalent of a state legislature in the amendment process, Congress
would submit amendments for the approval of its own agent."
Will concluded, "Because the Constitution stipulates that Congress
must have final responsibility for the District, residents of the District
have a special interest in congressional representation. But that fact
about final responsibility is one reason why it would violate the essence
of the American federalism to grant to the District representation in the
Senate, a body that expresses the principle of a union of sovereign
states." Professor Saltzburg said,
"It is impossible to derive anything useful from the study of
the intention of the framers in their treatment of the District in
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. It must be remembered that
there was no District at the time the Constitution was drafted and
ratified. … It must be recognized that even in 1801 it was
impossible for those members of Congress who took away the vote from
District citizens to anticipate the precise future development of the
nation. When it is recalled that entire races of people, women,
non-property holders and others were denied the right to vote, it is
not hard to see why assumptions as to the adequacy of representation
of all by a few might have been acceptable the, but not now" (The
Washington Post, September 19, 1978).
Opposition arose even among other minority groups. Ruben Bonilla,
director of United Latin American Citizens, the largest Mexican-American
civil rights group in Texas, said "It may be selfish, but giving the
District of Columbia two U.S. senators would give blacks a
disproportionate advantage in lobbying for federal jobs and programs over
Conservatives, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),
launched an attack to defeat the voting rights amendment. Formal
opposition to the amendment was voted by the American Conservative Union,
the Conservative Caucus, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and
Bear Arms, Young Americans for Freedom, as well as ALEC—an organization
with 700 conservative state legislators (The Washington Post,
December 3, 1978). Opponents of the D.C. voting rights amendment were
determined not to make the mistake they had with ERA—letting it get
ratified by 30 states before getting organized.
ALEC organized seminars for legislators on how to stop ratification of
the amendment. The money they spent on their first seminar was more than
the grand total raised at that point by amendment supporters. Professor
Jules B. Gerard of Washington University School of Law in St. Louis urged
opponents to "avoid debating the merits of the issue," because
"debating is a no-win proposition." He said, "Be sure you
don’t debate the problem, debate the amendment," because he said it
was possible for supporters to argue that D.C. residents deserved some
representation in Congress. Patrick Buchanan, former Nixon speechwriter
and "3rd generation Washingtonian," said fellow
residents have "a legitimate grievance," but he said the
District is little more than "a company town" of the federal
bureaucracy. He called the amendment "a constitutional and political
disaster," opening the door to "carpetbaggers" such as
Julian Bond, a black Georgia legislator, to take two Senate seats.
Buchanan said he would support giving D.C. a vote in the House, but not
the Senate. He also opposed allowing D.C. residents to vote for Maryland
Senators and Representatives and opposed retrocession. "The District
[would be] a small carbuncle on the otherwise smooth backside of the state
of Maryland," he said.
A former minority counsel to the House Ways and Means Committee member,
David West, warned that if the amendment passed, D.C. would "join the
eastern power structure that wants the west to remain the frontier."
He said he doubted D.C. would support land development in the west, but
would probably support land claims by Indian tribes for territory and
A Texas legislator attending the seminar said if D.C. gets two
Senators, Texas may exercise a provision from when they joined the Union
specifying they could divide into five states at anytime. "We might
go ahead and divide up and have 10 Senators. And maybe two of them would
be Chicanos," he told the audience. The Palo Alto Times
(August 30, 1978) attacked the amendment wording as sloppy:
"The wording is clumsy, clumsy, clumsy! The chefs who cooked
up that syntactical hash never heard of the rules of parallelism. …James
Madison, roll over in thy grave! …Under this proposed amendment, the
District of Columbia becomes nothing but a nothing; it is not a thing
at all. It becomes a political centaur, horned but impotent. It is not
to be a state in terms of interstate compacts. Its judicial
proceedings are not to enjoy full faith and credit. It gets no
guarantee against domestic violence. It has no reserved powers under
the 10th Amendment. It does not qualify under the 14th
Amendment. …The amendment simply is out of tune. It is a stylistic
abomination. And to talk politics for a moment, as distinguished from
constitutional exegesis, the effect would be to send two liberal,
urban Democrats to the Senate in perpetuity, with all the foreseeable
consequences in terms of treaties, filibusters, committee membership,
and the like. …The clamor for voting rights for the district’s
residents is the amplified bullhorn clamor of a few activists. The
people of Washington have had the power to vote for president, vice
president, congressional delegate, mayor, council and School Board,
and their voting turnouts have been abysmal. But if equal
representation is the be-all and end-all, the answer is to cede the
whole 62.7 square miles back to Maryland and be done with it."
In response to comments by Kansas Republican Senator Robert Dole’s
support for the amendment, Governor Meldrim Thomson of New Hampshire
suspected D.C. citizens really wanted to increase their power to take more
federal money: "The people of the District of Columbia draw far more
in welfare dollars than we in New Hampshire. How much more would they be
able to siphon out of the federal treasury if they have their own
congressional delegation?" he asked (The Washington Star,
August 28, 1978).
James J. Kilpatrick argued against the amendment in The Washington
Star because he opposed giving D.C. the vote in the Senate (December
9, 1978). He wrote:
"If the amendment served only to give the District voting
representation in the House, little opposition might have arisen. But
when the proponents insisted upon the whole hog, they invited the very
trouble they now are encountering. Conservatives are understandably
appalled at the prospect of adding two ultra-liberal Democrats to a
Senate of 100 members. Perhaps this is putting politics above
principle, but so be it. This would not be the first time politics and
statehood got entangled. Proponents have injected elements of racism
into their campaign for ratification: Pro-amendment equal pro-black,
and vice versa. But race has nothing to do with it. The certain
prospect, if the amendment is ratified, is for two senators who will
faithfully represent the one industry we have in our town, which is
government, which is to say, the bureaucracy and the welfare state.
There are other objections. This half-baked scheme would treat the
city ‘as though it were a state’ for certain purposes, but
Congress would retain power ‘to exercise exclusive legislation in
all cases whatsoever’ involving the District. If Washington should
get two senators, would they have the same privileges of other
senators? Presumably so. Well, then, would Sens. Jane Fonda and Julian
Bond be able to name U.S. district judges of their own choosing? Let
those who know anything at all of the lackluster federal judges of
Washington think that one over for a while. The rational answer is
retrocession. A small area of downtown Washington could be carved out,
containing the principal government buildings. The remaining 55 square
miles, more or less, could be given back to Maryland, whence they
came. This would satisfy every valid demand of the proponents without
violence to our federal structure. My hope is that most of the state
legislatures will see it that way."
Conservatives called the amendment "nominal statehood," and
argued that D.C. was already represented in the government—"they
are the government," Michael Novak argued in The Washington Star
(October 15, 1978). He wrote:
"As sinecures for wealthy candidates, the granting of two
Senate seats to the District would be a disaster. Carpetbaggers the
country over will descend on Washington like vultures for
single-issue, single-interest pickings. In the future, any candidate
who can organize—or buy—35,000 votes could win a Senate seat. The
District will become the happy hunting ground for wealthy would-be
Senators, a plaything for the ambitious. … The District is not
typical of America; it does not have the variety of a state. The
District is a one-industry town. The interests of nearly everyone who
works here are tied to a bigger, richer and more powerful government.
The District belongs to statists. The interests of the District of
Columbia are in this sense directly antagonistic to those of the 50
states. The District benefits by every shift of power away from the
states toward Washington.
The District "is already the only inflation-proof city in the
nation. It is, in fact, wealthier per capita than any state in the
Union except Alaska, far ahead of California, New York, and
Connecticut. In sum, the 50 states should vote against a
Constitutional amendment for the District of Columbia for four ‘too’s.’
The District is too wealthy, too factional, too statist and too
powerful in the government already. The first senators from D.C. are
likely to be white millionaires."
Meanwhile, in 1978, proponents attended the Democratic Party’s
midterm convention in Memphis to press their case. But proponents suffered
from behind-the-scenes rivalry between Delegate Walter Fauntroy and the
Coalition for Self-Determination for D.C., a Common Cause-backed group.
One observer commented that proponents were "over-leadered and
under-financed" (The Washington Star, December 6, 1978). The
Coalition, which wanted to show that the drive was by a broad-based group,
felt that a black elected Democrat with self-interest in running for a
voting seat in the Senate did not convey the proper image for the
ratification drive, while Fauntroy felt he should lead the fight after
leading the successful ratification fight in Congress.
Fauntroy criticized friends of the amendment for moving out in front
without having done the necessary groundwork. He said proponents in the
states didn’t understand that it took months of preparation and
training. He said the reason the amendment went through Congress was that
there was broad support that transcended race, party, and sectionalism,
and proponents had a carefully researched plan for moving it through the
House and Senate—elements that didn’t exist in the states in 1978.
William Raspberry (The Washington Post, November 29, 1979), quoted
"A lot of people—all of them local—have criticized me for
being too visible in the fight, for attracting too much attention to
the fact that Washington is a black, mostly Democratic city. They tell
me that we ought to be sending someone like a white oil man from Texas
instead of someone who might conceivably be interested in running for
a Senate seat. That misses the point. The point is that there are four
basic interests antithetical to our being represented in Congress.
They are rural interests, who assume we will elect people with an
urban commitment; conservatives, who assume we will elect
progressive-minded people; Republicans, who assume we will elect
Democrats; and racists, who assume we will elect blacks. We have to
figure out how to neutralize as many of these as possible. We can’t
do that from Washington, or by sending Washingtonians—including me—to
testify directly before the legislatures. We have to do the kind of
research that show us which are the principle elements of opposition,
then select the people who have relevance to the local
The Baltimore Sun strongly opposed to the amendment, to which
Washington Post responded with a point-by-point rebuttal (February 8,
Amendment proponents saw 1979 as a critical date, because some states
are on two-year cycles for legislative sessions. Also, 1980 was a
Presidential election year.
A pamphlet produced by Self Determination for D.C. argued that
opponents of the D.C. Voting Representation Amendment made misleading
"Providing a voting
member of the House is sufficient: Untrue. The Senate is a unique
body. It alone is charge with confirming Presidential appointments,
including those to the Supreme Court, and ratifying treaties. Why
should three-quarters of a million Americans have no say in these
vital areas of domestic and international concern? [Note from author:
the brochure did not mention the Senate’s role in a Presidential
"The District should be
reabsorbed by Maryland: In 1788, Maryland ceded the land that is now
the District to the federal government. Since then, the two political
entities have evolved in separate ways. An artificial bond reuniting
the two is opposed by both Maryland and the District.
"Article V of the
Constitution grants states alone the right to Congressional
representation: Eminent constitutional scholars deny that Article V
was intended to limit democratic representation. University of Texas
law professor Charles Alan Wright holds that Article V assured that
the compromise between large and small states that led to formation of
both houses ‘would not be undone and that the representation in the
Senate would not be put on the basis of population. That purpose is
not compromised by allowing the District to have two Senators any more
than it is when a new state is admitted."
Professor Judith Best argued that the amendment violated the principles
of federalism, that it did not accomplish the goal it set out to address
because it would not provide full and equal representation for District
citizens, that it raised serious constitutional questions, and that it
would make a fundamental change in the structure of the U.S. government
(Best, 1984: 63).
Best argued that there is today no "indispensable necessity for a
federal district," that the desire to keep one is "a sentimental
attachment to an old and familiar form," and that if the District
were to become part of the federal system rather than being a federal
district the national government would still retain full authority over
its own lands, buildings, and facilities (Best, 1984: 66). But, Best
insisted Congress would need Maryland’s approval to grant the District
statehood, and since the 1961 Amendment granting District citizens the
right to vote for President, the federal district has constitutional
status, and "[d]irect conflict of a legislative act with a provision
of the Constitution is unconstitutional, and a congressional act that
attempts to finesse a constitutional provision is surely also
unconstitutional," constituting a dangerous precedent (Best, 1984:
71). Best argued that both statehood and retrocession would have to be
granted via Constitutional amendment (Best, 1984: 71).
Best said that leading proponents in Congress passed the "nominal
statehood" amendment because leading proponents did not want the
District to become an independent and autonomous state because they felt
D.C. belonged to the whole nation (Best, 1984: 8). She noted, "The
overwhelming majority in both Houses of Congress favored national
representation for the District of Columbia. The congressional debates
reveal that there was near unanimity on the principle. The disagreement
arose over the nature of the remedy with a division into two camps: one
camp for nominal statehood and the other for retrocession. Although
nominal statehood won the day in Congress, it has floundered with
states" (Best, 1984: 9).
Some statehood supporters viewed the Voting Rights Amendment as an
attempt to derail the statehood movement. At the same time as D.C.’s
non-voting Delegate Walter Fauntroy and the D.C. League of Women Voters
sought ratification of the amendment, the D.C. statehood movement argued
that the only way for D.C. to achieve self-determination was either
statehood or retrocession. They said a Voting Rights Amendment addressed
only some of the issues, and could be reversed.
Indeed, by 1980, the Voting Representation Amendment stood in doubt
with only nine of 38 states needed having ratified the bill. Very few
resources were put into the effort. Mary Jane DeFrank, working this issue
for the League of Women Voters, commented on the difficulty of lobbying
fifty state legislatures who knew little—and many seemed not to care—about
the issue. She said that when she would tell them D.C. didn’t have
voting representatives in Congress, they would say ‘what are you talking
about?’ and ask what that had to do with them. D.C.’s non-voting
Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said, "Congress assumed the states
wouldn’t ratify it. That’s why they passed it in the first place"
(Meyers, 1996: 181).
The mood of the nation had moved in a conservative direction as Ronald
Reagan was elected President. A new conservatism and anti-government
feeling swept the nation, and Washington, D.C.—the federal government
that is rarely distinguished from local D.C.—was targeted as the enemy
of the people. Increasingly, Congressional conservatives, such as Orrin
Hatch of Utah (who wrote the Forward to Judith Best’s book) framed the
District as a parasite of the federal government, an area that produces no
wealth but that takes it from working people from the states (Diner, 1987:
65). They argued that to grant D.C. voting representation was to support
big government (Diner, 1987: 65).
According to the Northwest Current (March 1-14, 1984), Community
Connections Corporation conducted a telephone survey of 307 District
residents in February 1984. The D.C. Coalition for Self-Determination
composed of over 60 local and national groups, released the poll showing
77% said they supported "an amendment to the Constitution that would
give the District of Columbia voting rights in the U.S. Senate and House
of Representatives." Seventy-one percent said they felt
"strongly" that the District should have congressional
representation. Six percent felt strongly opposed, and 23% didn’t have a
strong feeling on the issue.
The deadline for getting the Voting Rights Amendment ratified by enough
states was August 22, 1985. Sixteen states approved the amendment: Oregon,
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, New
Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Louisiana, Hawaii
and Delaware. D.C. was 22 states short.
In 1993, the House Democratic majority granted D.C. and the non-voting
delegates from the four U.S. territories a symbolic vote, the right
to vote in the Committee of the Whole of the House of Representatives,
unless the vote changed the outcome. In that case, the vote would be
recounted without the delegates. D.C. Delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor
Holmes Norton, submitted a legal memorandum that prompted the change. The
U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals both upheld this vote
after House Republicans filed a lawsuit. This vote allowed the District to
vote on most of the business that comes to the floor of the House of
Republicans took away the delegate’s votes when they won the House of
Representatives in 1994, because they said it added five Democratic votes.
Norton has lobbied since to revive the D.C. delegate’s limited vote. In
2000, Thomas M. Davis III (Republican) of Virginia, chairman of the House
Government Reform subcommittee on the District, and Constance A. Morella
(Republican) of Maryland, vice chairman of the House Rules Committee,
joined Norton in support of the return of D.C.’s symbolic vote.
Because hopes for statehood appear to be severely diminished after the
1997 Congressional takeover of the District’s judicial functions,
Timothy Cooper, President of Democracy First, advocated an Equal Rights
Amendment (not a more limited Voting Rights Amendment) in Legal Times
(May 26, 1997). Professor Charles Wesley Harris had also discussed this
approach in his book, "Congress and the Governance of the Nation’s
Capital: The Conflict of Federal and Local Interests" (1995). For
discussion purposes, Cooper, Harris, and I drafted language for a DC
D.C. EQUALITY AMENDMENT PROPOSAL
AN AMENDMENT FOR EQUAL CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS
FOR US CITIZENS RESIDING IN THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Draft Text 6/4/02
For purposes of discussion only, the language of an
equal constitutional rights amendment for D.C. residents is set forth as
Section 1. All US citizens who are permanent
residents of the District of Columbia shall be treated as residents of a
state for all constitutional intents and purposes, enjoying those same
rights, powers and privileges as the people of the several states,
- The right to equal representation
in the House of Representatives [under Article 1.]
- The right to equal representation
in the U.S. Senate [under the Seventeenth Amendment.]
- The right to a republican form of
government [under Article 4].
- The right to all Constitutional
powers and privileges [under the Tenth Amendment.]
- The right to equal protection
[under the Fourteenth Amendment.]
- The right to elect equal electors
for President and Vice President [under Article 2.]
Section 2. Congress shall limit its power to
exercise its "exclusive legislation" over the District of
Columbia under Article 1, Section 8, paragraph 17 of the constitution to
the following geographical areas, except in the case of a compelling
Section 3. The Federal Height Act of 1910 shall
remain in full force and effect, unless amended, modified, or repealed by
Section 4. General services may be provided to the
federal government by the District of Columbia government on an as needed
basis on such terms as are mutually satisfactory to the parties. Nothing
shall prevent the federal government from compensating the District of
Columbia in the form of a payment in lieu of taxes for revenues foregone
as the seat of national government.
Section 5. The federal government shall continue to
hold jurisdiction over and provide for the District of Columbia's courts
and correctional facilities, until such time as the District by mutual
agreement with Congress shall pay for and administer these facilities. At
such time, they shall come under the exclusive authority of the District
of Columbia government.
Section 6. The twenty-third article of amendment to
the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 7. Congress shall have the power to enforce
this article by appropriate legislation.
This amendment would give D.C. citizens rights equal to those living in
states without making the District into a state, include full voting
representation under Article 2 of the Constitution and the 17th
Amendment, the right to a republican form of government under Article 4,
the right to 9th and 10th Amendment powers and
privileges, and the right to equal protection under the 14th
Considering the history of amendments related to D.C., it is clear that
Congress has not demonstrated interest in reducing its exclusive
legislative control, despite the fact that Congress does not need to
disenfranchise D.C. residents to have a safe and secure Capital District.
In addition, Republicans in Congress see little value in adding D.C. votes
in Congress, because D.C. Congressional votes would likely favor the
Some in local D.C. oppose an amendment because it would be less than
equal to the rights enjoyed by citizens living in a state ("not a
whole loaf"), and it could be reversed. Attorney George LaRoche
believes it will be problematic to become a state if another amendment is
Former Mayor Marion Barry argued that a Constitutional amendment would
be doomed. He pointed out that the Constitution has rarely been amended
and felt getting two-thirds vote from both houses of Congress and
three-fourths of all states (38 of 50) to ratify it would be
insurmountable (Meyers, 1996: 190). Congressman Tom Davis (Republican) of
Virginia said that "half the states did not even want to hold a
hearing on it" (Meyers, 1996: 190). Nevertheless, after the courts
ruled against D.C. in the two lawsuits, Congressman Tom Davis again
proposed a Constitutional amendment to grant D.C. a voting member of the
House of Representatives, but not in the Senate. The proposal has
generated limited interest. An amendment limited to voting rights in the
House only would leave too many other problems unsolved and could make
further gains more difficult.
Nationally representative opinion polls that I conducted in 1999 show
widespread support for equal rights—in both the Senate and the House. My
research also showed there is widespread support for allowing residents of
D.C. to elect their own local officials, like in other areas. I would
support an Equal Constitutional Rights Amendment, because there is no
compelling reason why permanent American citizens who live in D.C. should
have fewer Constitutional rights than American citizens who live in
states. D.C. needs an Equality Amendment.
Such an amendment would be tremendously hard to pass and would require
a significant amount of resources. Nevertheless, my research suggests that
an Equality Amendment could be more politically persuasive to the U.S.
public than statehood or retrocession.
The risk of an amendment is that, regardless of how well intentioned it
begins, members of Congress will work to dilute its language to the lowest
common denominator for expedient passage. And, if there is not local
unity, the amendment would likely fall flat during the ratification
process. Therefore, D.C. must have unity of purpose before pressing for
any amendment proposal. And, D.C. will need to spend years laying the
groundwork in educating the American public about the need and benefits of
such an amendment. Perhaps in the process, it would be determined that
D.C. should indeed become an independent state. But D.C. residents should
draw the line on how much compromise they would accept in an amendment.
There are no compelling reasons to retain third class citizens in the
nation’s Capital District.
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