Like the city itself, the push to grant Washington, D.C., autonomy and federal representation through statehood remains in an interminable limbo. While President Biden and most Democrats in Congress have backed statehood, the Admission Act, which passed the House a second time last month, stands no chance of moving through the Senate unless pivotal Democrats like Joe Manchin back the bill in substance, as well as the elimination of the legislative filibuster.
But last Thursday, anonymous administration sources leaked a bit of intriguing news from the White House. According to a report from The New York Times, the Biden administration “has quietly approached congressional Democrats about a potential change to their high-profile but long-shot effort to transform most of the District of Columbia into the nation’s 51st state,” in a provision that would address the fate of the District’s electors under statehood. This doesn’t resolve the political challenges surrounding statehood in itself. But it is a noteworthy proposal—partially because it represents the first time President Biden has backed an Electoral College reform.
Their idea requires a bit of explanatory context. The Constitution mandates the existence of an independent district housing the federal government: the District of Columbia. To get around this, the D.C. Admission Act recently passed by the House actually shrinks the size of the constitutionally mandated district to a small area within the city that would mostly contain the White House and other federal buildings. The rest of the city would be made into a new state, Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, with its own members of Congress and electoral votes.
But in 1961, the Twenty-Third Amendment granted the federal district, which today encompasses the entire city, electoral votes—specifically, the same number of electoral votes as the least populous state, three. And those votes would remain tethered to a shrunken federal district and its remaining residents: mostly, and possibly only, the president and their family. The D.C. Admission Act addresses this by using Congress’s authority over the District’s electors, delegated by the Twenty-Third Amendment, to block their appointment; if they’re never appointed, they can’t cast votes.
The Biden administration has privately signed onto an alternative solution: giving those electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. “It is unclear whether such a change would reflect legal concerns or the notion that it would be a wiser policy approach,” the Times’ Charlie Savage and Emily Cochrane wrote. “As a matter of political reality, giving the electors to the winner of the popular vote might spur Republican-controlled state legislatures to cooperate in swiftly repealing the amendment rather than obstructing the effort out of partisan pique: Since 2000, Republican presidential candidates have twice won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote.”
At first blush, this is encouraging news for statehood advocates. “It’s great that they’re actually engaged,” Josh Burch, co-founder of Neighbors United for DC Statehood, says. “We’ve never had an administration in the modern era diving into the details of the statehood bill and trying to figure out how to allay concerns surrounding it.”
At the same time, it’s important to understand that the Twenty-Third Amendment question, while potentially tricky to handle, doesn’t actually make statehood unconstitutional or negate the case for statehood in principle. “It’s not necessary,” Burch says. “It’d be good. If this gets us more votes, I’m fine with it. If this clarifies things and still doesn’t get us more votes, I’m fine with it. But it’s not necessary. I don’t want people to focus on this and think, ‘Oh, if this doesn’t happen, there’s some new constitutional question.’ There isn’t.”
Nevertheless, the fate of the statehood push rests upon whether advocates can get all Senate Democrats to agree. Last month, Joe Manchin told reporters he believed making D.C. a state would require a constitutional amendment, echoing critics of statehood on the right. This isn’t true, but Republicans are going to keep telling the public otherwise anyway, and the passage of a statehood bill would inevitably lead to lawsuits bound for a conservative Supreme Court. The administration’s suggestion might be understood as an attempt to put one argument in the Republican arsenal to bed.
But it also elevates an issue in which the president hasn’t previously shown an interest. Biden has yet to make an official statement as president about the Electoral College; he voiced opposition to the popular vote as a candidate, telling The New York Times’ editorial board last year that doing away with the college would require a constitutional amendment. As with the constitutionality argument against statehood, this isn’t really true. Democratic state legislatures have spent years advancing an end to the Electoral College by interstate compact, an effort that Democratic leaders don’t seem particularly interested in supporting or investing in.
The suggestion that D.C.’s Electoral College votes be allocated to the popular vote winner is a hint that the administration is thinking about the Electoral College as a broader problem. But while those three votes might make a difference in our increasingly close elections, the idea wouldn’t fundamentally fix the College’s distortions, and it’s being advanced privately without Biden having made an actual case for the value of the popular vote.
It grafts one structural reform debate the administration has been willing to have onto another the administration hasn’t, for reasons that aren’t actually technically integral to the passage of a statehood bill—again, Congress could theoretically just set the district’s electoral votes aside—muddling what was already a fairly complicated and controversial issue to the average voter. That’s not to say that the administration’s idea is substantively bad. But its political viability might depend upon the administration making a compelling public argument for it.
Of course, all of this is moot unless Senate Democrats gut or eliminate the filibuster. And here, too, Biden has yet to take a clear stand. It’s not obvious what we’re to do with Thursday’s news unless the situation in the Senate changes—leaks like this can be read as efforts to convince activists that an issue is being taken seriously even if nothing is really being done at the top to materially change a political situation.
Statehood activists are still working from below to sway legislators. Last week New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, one of the less prominent holdouts in the Senate Democratic caucus, announced her co-sponsorship of the Admission Act, a development Burch sees as evidence of growing momentum. “I’m still cautiously optimistic,” he says. “I think the constitutionality is a smaller issue, amazingly, than the filibuster is. And I don’t know if this country can stand two years of obstruction, not just on statehood, but on all legislation. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin—are they willing to wait around for two years of doing nothing while our democracy is under threat? I hope not. I don’t think they will.”