The bill is not expected to move through Congress, largely because of partisan politics: The vast majority of Republicans have no intention of welcoming two almost certainly Democratic senators and at least one congressman to the Hill. (Admission would require approval by both houses of Congress and the president.) But nonprofit and legal experts say the statehood debate is, at heart, part of a larger conversation about fundamental civil rights in the U.S. At stake are the voices of a population that has swelled by almost 100,000 over the past decade, reversing shrinking trends during 60 of the past 70 years.
It’s a racially charged question as well, informed by D.C.’s historical identity as the “Chocolate City”—a home to African Americans since the capital was cleaved from two slaveholding states (Virginia and Maryland) in 1791. Though the district’s demographics are changing rapidly, with blacks now composing just less than half of the population, the status quo has left all D.C. residents partially disenfranchised.
James Jones, communications director of DC Vote—a non-profit organization devoted to voting equality—points out that there’s more to the district than just the federal government and its monuments. D.C.’s population, he notes, is greater than those of two states—Wyoming and Vermont—and is denied a degree of self-determination because the feds control much of the city’s budget.
“We still live in a situation where members of Congress whom we did not elect hold ultimate sway over our budget and our legislative agenda,” Jones explains. “Most Americans would find that abhorrent.”
Edward H. “Smitty” Smith II is one of those Americans. A former federal lawyer who is now running for D.C. attorney general, Smith is a third-generation Washingtonian whose family has lived in the district since 1943 and has never had a voting representative in Congress. (D.C. residents have only had a vote for president since Congress ratified the 23rd Amendment in 1963.)
Monday’s Senate hearing demonstrated the moral and practical reasons for D.C. statehood, Smith says. “As Americans, under no conditions should issues of political convenience or expedience dictate fundamental rights,” Smith says. “The fact that [D.C. statehood] might prove politically inconvenient for either party is not a just reason for continuing to deny citizens those rights.”
Jones may be right that most Americans object to taxation without representation in theory, but ask them a specific question about Washington and things get fuzzy. One recent poll found that “only 24% of Likely U.S. Voters” believe D.C. should be a state. Indeed, critics of D.C. statehood have argued that the district is not a “state-like entity,” and that such a change would require a constitutional amendment, based on the fact that the district was originally carved out of two contiguous states. Furthermore, some conservatives argue that the new state would exercise undue influence over the federal government, and mainly represent urban, not rural, interests.