Making D.C. The 51st State

Our nation’s capital is the hub of our federal government and home to some of our country’s most meaningful landmarks. It’s also a place where hundreds of thousands of people live, work, and thrive — paying federal taxes, serving on juries and in the military, and providing for their families.

However, D.C. residents — the majority of whom are people of color — are at a severe and undemocratic disadvantage. They don’t have voting representation in Congress or the ability to independently pass their own laws or budgets, and are forced to contend with all kinds of federal interference. 

It’s far past time for the residents of D.C. to be able to govern themselves and have an equal voice in our democracy. We can make that a reality by admitting D.C. into the union as the 51st state.

The Problem

With 700,000 residents, Washington D.C.’s population is comparable to Alaska and North Dakota, states that both have two senators and a voting House member representing their interests in Congress. But as a district, D.C. has no senators and its one representative in the House is prevented from voting.

This lack of congressional representation for D.C. residents is not a coincidence. It’s part of a centuries-long concerted effort to exclude Black people from participating in our democracy.

During post-Civil War Reconstruction, Black men in D.C. were enfranchised, and they quickly got to work organizing to pass several pieces of legislation outlawing or restricting racial discrimination in public accommodations. In part because of this growing political power, a predominantly white Congress moved to roll back the progress made by Black male suffrage and stripped self-governance for the district until the civil rights movement.

D.C. residents couldn’t participate in presidential elections at all until the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961. It took until 1970 for Congress to give D.C. one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. Even in 2021, residents can’t fully control their own laws or budgets through the local representatives that they elect.  

The district is at the mercy of conservative representatives and senators from faraway states who impose right-wing policies on D.C. residents, the majority of whom are Black and Brown people.

The Solution

This country and our government should be of the people, by the people, and for the people. All of its people. And that includes the residents of Washington, D.C. The Washington, D.C. Admission Act, admits the district as the 51st state, naming it the “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.” The new state would consist of all of D.C.’s territory except for specified federal buildings and monuments, like the Capitol building.

As a state, D.C. would have the autonomy to act on the will of the people and enact policies that reflect the wants and needs of its residents. This bill would finally give D.C. equal voting representation in the House and Senate, and control over their own laws and budgets. This way, red state lawmakers won’t have a chance to force their archaic positions on abortion access, gun reform, or health care onto residents who didn’t elect them.

The Path to Winning

D.C. statehood doesn’t require a constitutional amendment. Like any other bill, it can become law by making its way through Congress with a simple majority vote in each chamber and being signed by the president.

And it is well on its way. In June 2020, the House of Representatives voted to make D.C. the 51st state, by a vote of 232-180. The bill has been reintroduced in the new Congress, but even with Democratic control of the Senate, there is work to be done to make sure the legislation will pass.

First, we need to make sure we have every Democrat in the Senate on board with D.C. statehood. And we can’t let Republicans off the hook either. Then, we need to make sure a minority of Republicans can’t hold the bill hostage.

In spite of the narrow majority Democrats now hold in the Senate, a minority of Republicans could still block D.C. statehood using the filibuster. If Republicans filibuster the bill — effectively disenfranchising the people of D.C. — Democrats must suspend the use of the filibuster for admitting new states so they can pass it with a simple majority, ensuring full political equality for the District’s residents.

Make no mistake, racism and political opportunism underpin the GOP’s blockade of D.C. statehood since voters of color — especially Black voters — tend to support progressive candidates and policies. But if we make sure our senators know this bill is a priority for their constituents and for our democracy, we can break through that blockade.