Hundreds of thousands of Americans, all of whom live in the United States, are disenfranchised solely because they live in the wrong city. On Wednesday, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton called for an end to this undemocratic practice.
“Washington, D.C., is home to nearly 700,000 Americans,” Clinton wrote in the Washington Informer, a newspaper that primarily serves the African-American community in D.C., and yet these Americans “don’t even have a vote in Congress.” Clinton pledged that “as president, I will be a vocal champion for D.C. statehood.”
This is a significant pledge from the Democratic Party’s almost-certain presidential nominee. Although President Obama endorsed D.C. statehood in 2014, he’s put little weight behind that support. And, in any event, a more rigorous effort by the Obama administration to enfranchise D.C. residents is unlikely to have prevailed so long as Republicans control Congress. District residents are overwhelmingly Democratic — Mitt Romney received just 7.3 percent of D.C.’s vote in 2012 — so disenfranchising D.C. residents prevents them from electing Democrats to Congress.
Yet Democrats also made no serious effort to enfranchise District residents even when they enjoyed supermajorities in both houses of Congress. The Constitution permits Congress to admit new states with a simple majority vote (assuming, of course, that the majority party does not let the filibuster state in the way). Yet, when Democrats controlled both houses in 2009, they did not push statehood.
Instead, they primarily rallied behind constitutionally dubious legislation that would have given D.C. a single vote in the House and no representation whatsoever in the Senate — without actually making D.C. into a state. Moreover, this compromise legislation effectively canceled out the new voting member of Congress by also giving a new House seat to the blood red state of Utah. And then this limited measure didn’t even become law.
It was an absurd act of political malpractice. Democrats had the power to enfranchise D.C. residents, a strong political incentive to do so, and the powerful moral argument that no American’s fundamental right to vote should be stripped away from them because of their address. Instead, they couldn’t even pass a measure that was watered-down to the point of tastelessness and that was very likely to be struck down by the courts if it had become law.
It is unlikely that the party of Voter ID and similar efforts at voter suppression will suddenly decide to grant voting rights to D.C. residents so long as those residents prefer Democrats to Republicans, so Clinton’s own ability to make a meaningful push for D.C. statehood is likely to depend on whether her party also captures both houses of Congress. That’s a difficult task for Democrats, as gerrymandering and other factors related to redistricting give Republicans a significant advantage in the battle for control of the House. Nevertheless, as several analysts have noted, the GOP’s decision to nominate the historically unpopular Donald Trump at least gives Democrats a fighting chance at placing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) back in the Speaker’s chair.
The best argument against D.C. statehood is that it makes no sense to give a city with less than a million residents two whole seats in the United States Senate. It’s good argument! The Senate is a malapportioned relic that is only slightly more democratic than the British House of Lords.
Taken to its logical end, however, that argument requires the United States to make far more fundamental changes than simply adjusting the voting rights of Americans who reside in the nation’s capital. The state of Wyoming, for example, has over 86,000 fewer residents than the District of Columbia. And yet it receives just as many senators as California, with California’s nearly 40 million residents. As a result, a voter in Wyoming effectively has 67 times as much representation in the Senate as a voter in California.
It’s worth noting, moreover, that Senate malapportionment also has profound partisan implications. As ThinkProgress previously explained, “the 46 members of the Senate Democratic caucus represent over 170 million people. The 54 Republican senators represent less than 150 million.” According to FairVote, a voting reform group, “the 46 Democratic caucus members in the 114th Congress received a total of 67.8 million votes in winning their seats, while the 54 Republican caucus members received 47.1 million votes.” Treating D.C. the same way we currently treat Wyoming would mitigate this imbalance, although it would be only a small step toward closing such a large gulf.
Republicans, of course, could compromise with Democrats by abolishing the Senate, or by eliminating malapportionment of seats within Congress’ upper house — a measure that would require two separate constitutional amendments (one to neuter a provision in the Constitution that protects such malapportionment and then another to reallocate seats or eliminate the body), but that could be achieved if there were sufficiently broad support. Such a measure would eliminate both parties’ ability to game the statehood process in order to increase their likelihood of winning a Senate majority, a form of gamesmanship that has occurred in the past. In 1889, the Dakota Territory was admitted as two states, instead of just one, at least in part because Republicans believed that two Dakotas would give them four Republican senators.
Absent a more complete cure to Senate malapportionment, however, the fact remains that an American who moves across the Potomac River gives up one of their most fundamental rights. Hillary Clinton now has a plan to change that.