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The Amendment Series: The District of Columbia

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I’ll be honest, until reading up on the Twenty-Third Amendment, I really knew nothing of it. Here’s the actual amendment.

The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct:

A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

So, when the Constitution was originally written, there was no Washington D.C. or District of Columbia. However, the founders still wanted to make provision for Congress to hold ultimate control over where the “seat of government” would reside. They established this principle in Article One, Section Eight, Clause Seventeen, also referred to as the “seat of government clause”. This clause provided for the establishment of the District and then gave Congress exclusive power to govern the District. It’s not a State and therefore does not enjoy the privileges of statehood that actual States enjoy.

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When it was first created, the inhabitants of the District voted in their respective previous states. Eventually Congress changed this form of voting and anyone who lived within the borders of the District of Columbia was directly subject to Congressional authority with no State intermediary.

This means that anyone who resides in Washington D.C. is akin to someone residing in Puerto Rico. If the citizen wants to vote in federal or state elections, they must be registered to do so in some other State since the Constitution requires that to be eligible to vote, one must be a citizen of some STATE.

However, the Twenty-Third Amendment altered this requirement a bit. The Twenty Third Amendment was officially ratified on March 29, 1961 when Ohio became the thirty-eighth state State to ratify. The amendment establishes that citizens residing in The District of Columbia shall be afforded the ability to vote for electors in the Presidential elections. The amendment establishes that the district be given the same number of electoral votes as the smallest state–which is three.

This is unique in many ways because the number of citizens residing in the District is less, 672,228 than the official threshold of 710,767 (per the 2010 census) residents required to warrant a single House representative. Furthermore, statehood is represented by two senators per state, no matter the population. So, the District is afforded a semblance of statehood as a result of this amendment. The fewest number of electoral votes any State has is three because a State is guaranteed at least one representative and two senators–hence, the three electoral votes afforded to the smallest of states and now to Washington D.C. residents.

However, residents of The District of Columbia do not have the ability to vote for members of Congress–meaning, anyone residing in the District of Columbia does not have a direct Congressional representative in the House or the Senate.

Here’re two arguments, one in favor and one against, this amendment that I believe are better left as they are written.

"The District of Columbia receives very special treatment otherwise reserved for the rare case of sparsely populated States. Those States are given that privilege as States in recognition that some largely rural States will be sparsely populated. The District of Columbia lacks the status of statehood not only for constitutional reasons discussed below, but because it is a city.  The United States, unlike medieval Europe, does not have city-states.

In effect, the Twenty-Third Amendment increases the powers of Congress. Given that Congress has continually expanded its powers at the expense of the States, it should not surprise us that it would covet controlling voting in the Electoral College as if it were a State legislature.

The provision for a “federal town” in the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, addresses the need for the federal government to be separate from, and not dependent on, any State. It reflects the experience of the Philadelphia Mutiny of 1783, when some soldiers marched on the Continental Congress and the city failed to protect the Delegates. Accordingly, James Madison writes in The Federalist No. 43:

The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government, carries its own evidence with it .  . . Without it, not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity, but a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national council an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the confederacy."  John S. Baker Jr. 


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The claim that District residents do not have (and should not have) full representation in Congress tends to rest on the meaning of the word “state” as it is used in the Constitution. For example, with respect to the House of Representatives, the argument goes: 1) the right of any citizen to full House representation rests exclusively in Article I; 2) Article I provides that only qualified citizens have the right to be represented in the House of Representatives; 3) a citizen is qualified under Article I if he or she is a resident of a state; 4) the District of Columbia is not a state; therefore 5) District residents are not qualified under Article I and have no voting rights.

Today, the Twenty-Third Amendment, giving the people of the District the right to choose electors to participate in the elections of the President and Vice President, together with the 1973 Home Rule Act, giving the District the right to elect a Mayor and Council, have gone some way in bringing District residents closer to full citizenship. But it still remains that the District has no voting representative in the Senate or the House, no final control over its taxes, and no dominion even over its laws, which Congress can overrule when it so chooses. This quasi-colonial relationship is often explained away with claims on the one hand that congressional representation would result in the District having outsized power given its small geographic footprint and small population, and on the other hand that any disadvantages to not having full legislative representation are more than outweighed by the supposed financial benefits the District receives from its relationship with the federal government. But it seems an irreconcilable contradiction to maintain both that legislative power is too important to entrust to such a small population as make up the District andnot so important that it can’t be bought off with some federal appropriations money." Anderson Bellegarde Francois 

In the end, the Twenty-Third Amendment has been ratified, and residents of Washington D.C. have a say in the presidential elections (also in a few local mayoral elections). Whether this amendment strengthened our Republic or weakened it is likely something that only time will tell.

The Liberty Belle

2 thoughts on “The Amendment Series: The District of Columbia”

  1. Pingback: The District of Columbia – The Liberty Belle –

  2. It would seem that my observations are on target because I am receiving flak from people on the right that I offended with my comments. I say this because I have been put on the mailing list of President Trump and a leading number of his right-wing sycophants asking for donations lately. I only comment on a few websites so it narrows it down to where it could possibly be coming from. I feel I should inform you that your actions are wasted because those “E” mails are immediately directed to my spam folder and deleted without reading them. In addition, may I point out they have absolutely no effect on my altering future comments nor my opinion of your lawless pitchfork movement.

    It is a pity that they feel they must take this childish attempt at harassment and intimidation instead of engaging in a dialogue but when their platform is fear and revanchism they have nothing to debate with. By nature, political parties usually have a position on just about every issue, while movements do not because they have no pretensions of ever governing. As Russell Kirk said, “It is much easier to tear down than to build.”

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