How Could Washington, D.C. Become a State?

Once you realize that Washington, D.C. has a population around 689,000 (as of 2020), it probably boggles your mind regularly that it’s not a state. That’s more people than both Vermont and Wyoming, and is comparable to Alaska and the Dakotas. The relationship between Washington, D.C. and statehood is pretty complicated, so you might be wondering what it would take to turn the District of Columbia into a state. So let’s walk through it; how could Washington, D.C. become a state?

Further Reading: Is Washington, D.C. a State?

Why Isn’t It a State Right Now?

The too long, didn’t read for why D.C. isn’t a state is “the Founding Fathers said so in 1788.” 

Well they had some reasons. Chiefly, they believed the capital of the United States should be free from any kind of political pressure. The United States gives quite a bit of leeway to individual state governments despite having a federal government. It’s why you can cross state lines and suddenly something you’re used to doing all the time is now illegal. Like turning on a red light

Originally, the idea behind the capital not being a state was simple: the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent a potential conflict of interest between the individual rights of the capital as a state and the power that state would have over the federal government. Plus, they believed the federal government should have legislative authority over the capital city of the US.

The problem, specifically with Washington, D.C., is that it wasn’t originally the United States Capital. So when the federal district moved to Washington, D.C. anyone who was already there lost their representation.

The Washington, D.C. Admission Act

There are a handful of arguments against turning D.C. into a state, we’ll start with those because the common arguments for turning D.C. into a state are in part a response. It actually doesn’t help that some arguments against D.C.’s statehood are deeply partisan. D.C.’s residents tend to favor the Democratic Party, and if it were given representation in the House or Senate the GOP is (to put it lightly) uncomfortable with giving up potential seats. It’s no surprise then that many votes for D.C.’s statehood go along party lines. That’s not particularly helpful for D.C., since preventing something from happening in the United States’ government is way easier than enacting any kind of change–especially adding a new state. 

One of the big arguments levied against statehood is the original intent of the United States’ founders, which we just outlined. This is something that H.R.51 (the Washington, D.C. Admission Act) broadly aims to remedy by simply not including the federal district as part of a hypothetical “Washington, D.C. State.” The federal district would be reduced to just encompassing the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, and parts of Washington, D.C.’s downtown area. 

The 23rd Amendment allows the federal district to participate in presidential elections. This presents… An issue if Washington, D.C. were to become a state and the federal district were shrunk to the seats of political power in the US. As it stands, if D.C. became a state, it’s possible that the newly shrunken federal district–now home to basically just the White House–would get to cast electoral votes for the president. The ACLU, which is in support of D.C.’s statehood, discusses some of the tensions between the 23rd Amendment and H.R. 51 here.

Arguments for Statehood

Perhaps one of the simplest arguments for Washington, D.C.’s statehood is just that the people who live there want it. In a 2016 referendum for the District of Columbia’s statehood, 85.7% of voters voted in favor of D.C. statehood. Things change, America didn’t fight WWII with 50 states on the flag.

Washington D.C.’s statehood also presents a civil rights issue. Washington, D.C., and its residents, are also burdened with many of the responsibilities of statehood. It has its own local government and the residents of Washington, D.C. pay taxes. Paying taxes without representatives in the House or Senate sounds a lot like “taxation without representation.”

If we turned Washington, D.C. into a state, it would have the highest proportion of Black residents of any state. It’s well-documented that race has either implicitly or even explicitly played a role in the disenfranchisement of D.C.’s (potential) voters. If you are a skeptic about the “explicit” part, some Senators have been… Really explicit about it

Okay, but how would D.C. actually become a state?

Constitutionally, admission to the Union is outlined in Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution. Basically it says new states can be added as long as they’re not made up of land under the jurisdiction of other states. Like, you couldn’t hack off a part of Florida and call it a new state. Nor could you just create a new state bubble on the border between Oregon and California. Washington, D.C. faces none of those issues, as it’s not under the jurisdiction of any state.

H.R. 51 passing in the House was one of the first big steps to turning D.C. into a state. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, so the simple passage of H.R. 51 doesn’t make Washington, D.C. into a state on its own. 

The Senate would have to weigh in on statehood as well, which would require 60 votes in the Senate to pass. Technically a simple majority of 51 would be valid as well, but the Senate filibuster functionally pushes that to 60 votes. This also assumes the Senate doesn’t nuke the filibuster out of existence. Long short, both the House and Senate have to approve of D.C. statehood.

Further Reading: What Is a Filibuster and How Do They Work?

After all that, the president has to sign off on it. 

Amendment Sidebar

A constitutional amendment is not a prerequisite for Washington, D.C. becoming a state. The text of the 23rd Amendment simply affords the right to presidential-election-participation to the seat of government in the US. H.R. 51 hypothetically shrinking the federal district is not incompatible with the text of the 23rd Amendment on its own. However, it does mean the tiny handful of people living in the hypothetically shrunken federal district get electoral votes. Which is a conflict of interest when that tiny handful is basically just the White House. Changing or even repealing the 23rd Amendment should D.C. become a state is generally agreed upon, but whether or not it should be done before or after D.C. becomes a state is often debated. 

The process for amending the Constitution is outlined in Article V. It requires two thirds of both the House and Senate or the approval of two thirds of the states to come together and hold a convention to talk about it. Now think about that and imagine how hard it is to get two thirds of a room to agree on what kind of pizza to get. 

Further Reading: How Do You Amend the Constitution?

See if you know the landmarks of Washington, D.C. here.