Leading up to the American Revolution, one of the colonists’ chief complaints about the British Empire was that it imposed “taxation without representation”—a slogan that Washington, D.C. has since adopted as its unofficial motto.
In 2000, D.C. started printing “Taxation Without Representation” on all of the city’s standard license plates, and in 2016, the city updated it to “End Taxation Without Representation.” The license plates reference the fact that D.C. residents pay federal taxes without having any voting representatives in the U.S. Congress, and they’re part of a long history of D.C.’s fight for the same voting rights and self-governance as the 50 states.
After Reconstruction, Congress Abolishes D.C.’s Government
Washington, D.C. is the ancestral home of the Nacotchtank people, also known as Anacostans. After British colonists drove them out of their land, it became part of Maryland and Virginia. In 1790, both of these states ceded the territory to establish the District of Columbia as the capital of the United States. At the time there were about 3,000 people living in D.C.—too few to become a state—and white men who owned property in D.C. continued to vote in either Maryland or Virginia as they had before.
The U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17) instructed that the seat of government be a “District (not exceeding ten miles square)” over which Congress would “exercise exclusive legislation.” James Madison spelled out the reason for the arrangement, explaining that maintaining an isolated district would prevent any state from holding too much power by being home to the national government.
Starting in the early 19th century, Congress established a series of different government models that allowed voters to elect some local leaders while stripping them of their previously-held right to vote for president or elect voting members of Congress. Then in the 1870s, Congress stripped D.C. of its local representation too.
During Reconstruction, Black Americans made up about a third of D.C.’s population. Once Black men won the right to vote in local D.C. elections in 1867, they quickly established themselves in the city’s local government. Congress responded by dismantling that government through new laws in 1871 and 1874 that gave the president—whom D.C. residents still couldn’t vote for—the sole power to appoint D.C. leaders. The president could consult with Congress when appointing these leaders, but because D.C. voters couldn’t elect voting members of Congress, they had no way to influence these decisions.
The president, congressmen and many federal staff members remained immune to these changes because they were registered to vote in their home states. D.C.’s restrictions on voting and self-governance only applied to full-time residents. And, like the voting restrictions that southern states used to prevent Black men from voting after Reconstruction, these restrictions were specifically designed to suppress Black political power.
John Tyler Morgan, a former Confederate soldier who joined the U.S. Senate in 1877, was explicit about this intent. He said Congress had “to burn down the barn to get rid of the rats…the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.”
Civil Rights Era Brings Change
The 1870s system that denied D.C. residents the right vote for their own local government—as well as the congressional members and president who oversaw that government—stayed in place for nearly a century. During that time, D.C.’s Black population grew. In 1957, D.C. became the nation’s first predominantly-Black city. In 1970, the Black population peaked at over 537,000 people, or 71 percent of the city’s population. By then, many residents had moved to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia where they had full voting rights.
Black D.C. residents fought to change their city’s unequal status during the civil rights movement, and won some key victories. The first was the right to vote for the president and vice president through the 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961. The city held its first presidential election in 1964, voting overwhelmingly for the sitting president Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona who’d voted against the Civil Rights Act earlier that year.
Still, there were drawbacks to this victory. Even though D.C.’s most recent census population of nearly 706,000 people made it more populous than Wyoming and Vermont, it couldn’t receive more electors than the lowest-populated state. Since 1964, D.C. has always had three electors, the lowest number possible, regardless of its population size.
Self-governance was another battle. A century after Reconstruction, there were still many white members of Congress who didn’t believe a city with such a large Black population should govern itself. John Rarick, a House member representing Louisiana, “warned that any measure giving the district power to govern itself could lead to a takeover by the Black Muslims,” the Associated Press reported in 1972.
Despite such resistance, D.C. residents won the right to elect their own mayor and city council through the Home Rule Act, which Congress passed in 1973. The next year, D.C. elected Democrat Walter E. Washington as its first home-rule mayor. Still, there were limitations on what the new home-rule government could do. Congress has the right to reject any laws the D.C. mayor and council pass, and has used it to strike down many D.C. laws.
In 1971, D.C. also won a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. This delegate can serve on committees and speak on the floor but cannot vote on the final version of any legislation. There was actually a significant push to give the city voting members of Congress at the time: In 1978, Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have given Washington, D.C. two voting senators and a voting member of the House. However, it died in 1985 after failing to receive ratification from the required 38 states.
Could D.C. Become the 51st State?
Since 1980, D.C. has advocated for congressional representation through statehood. Activists and politicians have connected D.C.’s fight for representation to similar struggles in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. Like D.C. residents in 1960, the U.S. citizens who live in these territories pay federal taxes but have no voting members in Congress and can’t vote for president.
“Opponents of Washington statehood make specious legal arguments, claiming that the Constitution mandates complete federal authority over the district and thus precludes statehood,” Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s former national security advisor, wrote in the New York Times. “But the Constitution merely states that the federal enclave cannot exceed 10 square miles; it does not prohibit carving out a limited area for government buildings that remains under federal control, while making the rest of the district into a state.”
Congress has introduced multiple bills that would make D.C. the 51st state, including one passed by the House of Representatives on April 22, 2021. So far, none have passed in both houses, but politicians and activists continue to push for statehood.