Yes We Can: Washington DC’s Struggle for Statehood

Normally being physically close to power is seen as an advantage for the population of a capital. This is not quite the case in Washington D.C. The city’s residents lack representation in Congress and control over their own budget. On November 8 Washingtonians will, instead of voting for Congressmen and -women vote in a referendum on statehood. If passed, it will only be a proposal to the Senate. Still, it may result in the 51st state of Washington Douglass Commonwealth (named after D.C.-based abolitionist Frederick Douglass).

In Washington D.C., just weeks before what might be called the craziest presidential election ever, there are surprisingly few signs of it. Looking at the American political climate and the obsession even here in Swedish media one might expect seas of patriotic slogans and smiling faces of politicians plastered along the streets. The only sign of the presidential election to be seen anywhere were one or two lawn signs and political campaign videos on the TV. Wrapped around every other lamppost, on the other hand, were red and white signs reading Statehood Yes We Can!, urging the population of the capital to vote yes in the District of Columbia referendum for statehood.

Originally, in 1801 the thought was that the capital needed to stand on it’s own, both for safety and independence. The federal institutions should not depend on a state for upholding law and order and any state hosting the capitol would have an unfair advantage and power. Instead Congress got exclusive legislation over the area and the district became reliant on federal funds. This meant that the then few residents weren’t allowed to vote and their finances were treated as any other ministry. The fight for suffrage began almost right away. Today the citizens of D.C. can vote in presidential elections, but they are still restricted to a shadow representation in Congress, where they can lobby but not vote. This led to the slogan ”No taxation without representation” being recycled from the original fight for American independence. In this case, it is referring to how the citizens of Washington D.C. pay more taxes per capita than most other Americans.

(Picture: Ted Eytan; Flickr)

Washingtonians also rally over the lack of financial autonomy. Unlike other states, who determine their own budget, the District of Columbia get their proposed budget accepted by the Senate. In practice this has meant that laws concerning abortion, gun control legislation and the legalization of marijuana have been blocked when the budget doesn’t contain funds for implementation. This is supported by the argument that both the population and economy are bigger that some existing states.

Those opposing statehood mainly refer to the state still being very small, it’s lack of countryside and the fact that a majority of the population works for the federal government. They argue that this gives them an unfair voice in the Senate for unique priorities. As a counter-offer they propose the option of the area rejoining Maryland, which the land of the capitol was originally a part of. This seems an unlikely solution with neither Washingtonians nor the population of Maryland giving it much support.

When talking to politically active people during our visit, statehood often seemed like a no brainer which obviously should be remedied. The Washington Post’s poll from 2015 showed that a large majority (about two-thirds) are in favour of the idea. Even if the referendum were to show a majority of Washington D.C.’s inhabitants wanting statehood, the proposal still needs to pass the Senate. If the Senate election on the 8th were to result in a Democratic majority there is still a chance, but Republicans are unlikely to add another state that solidly supports the Democratic party to the Union. They have also been accused of opposing statehood due to Washington D.C.’s population historically being majority African American and liberal.

Historically it seems that the opinion of the people of Washington D.C. carry little weight in this decision. The polls show that the most likely outcome of the Senate elections is a Democratic majority or a tie with the vice president having the deciding vote. So for those wishing for the state of Washington Douglass Commonwealth there might be more to worry about in the case of a Republican presidency than Donald Trump.

Ebba Bergström

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