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The Democrats’ Future Depends on D.C. Statehood

Voters in the District and Puerto Rico deserve representation, and the party’s ambitions just might depend on it.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Eleanor Holmes Norton is Washington, D.C.’s nonvoting congressional representative.

The long debate around voting rights in Washington, D.C., which has been renewed this week ahead of Friday’s House vote on statehood for the capital, didn’t actually begin in that city. It predates the existence of Washington, in fact.

Thomas Tredwell, a Revolution-era attorney and politician, first raised the issue at New York’s 1788 convention to ratify the Constitution. The still-unnamed capital, devised by James Madison the previous year to act as the seat of American government, was undemocratic in its very conception, Tredwell wrote, because “subjecting the inhabitants of that district to the exclusive legislation of Congress, in whose appointment they have no share or vote, is laying a foundation on which may be erected as complete a tyranny as can be found in the Eastern world.”

The other delegates ignored him, the Constitution was adopted, and Charles L’Enfant skulked onto the scene with his ruler and compass a few years later. 

Washingtonians have waged a two-century battle to gain home rule and ballot access since those early days. The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, which would have granted the city full representation in Congress, was sent to the states for ratification in 1978; when it failed, the cause was taken up by Jesse Jackson, who spent a term as D.C.’s nonvoting senator advocating loudly for statehood. Futile votes were taken in the House of Representatives in 1993 and the Senate in 2009. Locals overwhelmingly passed a statehood referendum just four years ago. 

None of it worked, and neither will this week’s vote in Congress. Whatever happens on the House floor, any new legislation affecting the District also needs to make it through the Senate,  where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has preemptively dismissed the effort—along with Puerto Rico’s parallel movement toward statehood—as “full-bore socialism.” 

It’s a safe bet that Democrats will someday stitch new stars on the flag, even if it takes another 232 years. It won’t happen in 2020, and it may not even happen under a potential Biden presidency. Nevertheless, raw political logic demands that it happen eventually. Put simply, Democrats need new voters just as much as the four million people living in Washington and Puerto Rico need real votes.

Those two nonstates, the District and the Commonwealth, are in some respects opposites. They are the American political jurisdictions with the highest and lowest per-capita incomes, one a neglected island territory largely dependent on tourism, the other a wealthy city-state increasingly enmeshed in international networks of politics and finance. 

But the Trump era has exposed their mutual civic affliction. Puerto Ricans first endured the government’s inattention during the Hurricane Maria disaster, then watched for years as recovery dollars flowed to areas that had suffered a fraction of their pain. Washington, shortchanged of relief funding during the Covid pandemic, has subsequently had to deter attempts by the White House to gain control over its police force during the recent wave of protests precipitated by the killing of George Floyd. 

What has become clear is that nonvoting delegates such as Eleanor Holmes Norton, a spirited champion of D.C. and the longtime face of its bid for statehood, are a hollow substitute for true representatives who can approve or scuttle legislation, build coalitions, and put holds on executive nominees. Places, like people, are ignored if they can’t cast meaningful votes. 

The question is why Republicans, particularly those schooled in McConnell’s procedural will to power, would help enfranchise people who aren’t likely to vote Republican anytime soon. Imagine if, by some historical accident, a few rural pockets of the Mountain West had been given territorial status instead of full statehood, and their citizens were now itching to elect conservatives who would defend their gun rights and approve new pipelines. Admittedly, it’s easier to imagine that a few Democrats would play ball, if only because their stated values demand it. Still, plenty would find reasons to oppose a Republican bid to blatantly pad their own caucus numbers.

Whatever their ostensible commitments to fairness and representation, Democrats must also see the enormous political advantage they stand to win by enfranchising Puerto Rico and the District. This is particularly true in the Senate, where the party currently holds 47 of 100 seats and needs to reach parity at the very least for a Biden presidency to have a chance of success: Economic stimulus, progressive legislation, and Supreme Court nominations will be bottled up if they fall short by even one vote. It is not unreasonable to imagine that the ability of future Democratic presidents to simply seat the Cabinet of their choice is at stake. But in a world where Washington and Puerto Rico elected four Democratic senators to a 104-member body, the climb would be much less steep.

Given the partisan realignment currently underway, Democrats may see few alternatives. Their last Senate majority, a product of wave elections in 2006 and 2008, was built on reliable seats in South Dakota, Arkansas, and Louisiana that have since been lost for a generation or more. Yes, the party is newly competitive in the Sun Belt states of Arizona and Georgia, but former battlegrounds like Ohio and Iowa are lurching rightward at the same time. It’s an open question whether any other Democrat could hold the seats currently occupied by Sherrod Brown and Jon Tester; Joe Manchin’s West Virginia seat is assuredly lost whenever he retires. 

If President Biden enjoys a free hand next January, it would only require a majority vote in both houses for Democrats to grant congressional representation to both Puerto Rico and Washington (assuming they are willing to garrote their inner parliamentarians and ditch the filibuster). The move would be an exercise in what experts call “constitutional hardball,” the use of unsavory-but-legal tactics that tend to degrade our faith in democracy. Adding new states, particularly to secure political agency for millions of citizens who have gone centuries without it, is perhaps not as extreme as packing the Supreme Court. But it would represent an obvious escalation of the dirty war that has raged for years over filibuster abuse and voter ID laws.

That said, it would hardly be unprecedented. As the political scientist Matt Glassman has written, the statehood process was used throughout the nineteenth century to serve a host of partisan and sectional ends, most infamously the preservation of balance between slave states and free states. In fact, we are now living through the nation’s longest period without fashioning a new state.

The last time we did—the admission of Alaska and Hawaii—provides an instructive example. The populations of both territories eagerly lobbied for statehood, but deliberations had dragged on for years over procedural and substantive objections. The biggest impediment was a segregationist bloc of Southern Democrats who, dreading the prospect of new civil rights legislation, fought back any attempt to dilute their voting strength in the Senate. They were particularly vociferous in denying statehood to Hawaii, a majority-nonwhite state that was home to thousands of Japanese nationals.

Their intransigence was only overcome by a bipartisan majority of Northern Democrats and moderate Republicans who finally pushed through the new states within a matter of months in 1959. What sold the compromise was the promise of offsetting partisanship: Alaska was expected to become a Democratic state, while Hawaii was thought to lean Republican. Ironically, the opposite has proven true, but over a half-century later, the parties have indeed broken even.

Washington and Puerto Rico probably have a stronger argument for representation now than Alaska and Hawaii had then. Their populations are much larger, and virtually all of their inhabitants are already U.S. citizens. The problem is that most of those citizens are Democrats, and there’s no way to give them a voice in Congress that doesn’t also upset the status quo.