D.C. Statehood Should Be Part of Voting Rights Reform

Equal representation for the nation’s capital residents is a genuine necessity for improving our democracy.

Many activists for DC statehood have a new message for Democrats: add the measure to the broader package of voting reforms being considered in Congress, including H.R.1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Hoping to capitalize on a Democratic push on voting rights, activists who support making the District of Columbia a state now say they want a stand-alone statehood measure added to a sweeping national election overhaul the Senate is beginning to consider.

Some backers of statehood say that they see the more comprehensive legislation as the most expedient route and that the current Democratic effort to protect minority voting rights would fall short if residents of the nation’s capital ultimately lacked representation.

“We believe that including D.C. statehood in S-1 offers the most viable path to enfranchising the 700,000 mostly Black and brown citizens of D.C.,” said Stasha M. Rhodes, a campaign director for the pro-statehood coalition 51 for 51, referring to the bill number of the Senate proposal. “We think it is our responsibility to ensure that D.C. statehood is not left out of the conversation.”

Not everyone is on board yet. But there is wisdom in the effort. Embattled and outnumbered Republicans see expanded voter rights as an existential threat to their viability as a national party, and know that suppressing Democratic votes is not only essential to maintaining minority rule, but to re-energizing their distrustful base. There is no hope whatsoever of garnering enough crossover Republican votes to defeat a filibuster on this issue.

Nor does it seem immediately likely that Democrats will eliminate the filibuster. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is enjoying the attention too much to change his stance, and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) seems equally intransigent. There do, however, seem to be growing rays of hope that the automatic filibuster might be reformed. But any reform of the filibuster short of eliminating it would not force Republicans to work much harder to keep the majority from voting. It would also give them an opportunity grind the Senate to a halt. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened to try to create “nuclear winter” in the Senate even if Democrats got rid of the filibuster altogether.

Suffice it to say that if Democrats do succeed in passing voting rights reform, it will only be after a brutal, no-holds-barred Senate showdown that would involve both some sort of filibuster reform and a leave-all-the-bodies-on-the-floor act of obstruction by Republicans. If it does happen, there will likely be little energy left in Congress for another similar battle over D.C. statehood.

Some Democrats would understandably like to a keep a “clean” voting rights bill to avoid GOP accusations of a power play. But Republicans are already frantically making those claims about H.R.1 to begin with, and anyone inclined to listen to them is hardly going to be persuaded any more or less by the presence of D.C. statehood in the bill.

But equal representation for residents of the nation’s capital is a genuine voting rights issue. There are more people living in D.C. than in Wyoming or Vermont, but they have no representation in the Senate. The Senate itself is already skewed heavily in favor of rural white conservatives in sparsely populated states, so granting two Senators to D.C. could hardly be called unfair to Republicans. It would be just the beginning of rebalancing the playing field to make the Senate more representative of America as it actually exists, and should in all fairness be followed by the inclusion of long-suffering Puerto Rico as well.

Republicans for their part have laid a trap for themselves through the virulence of their opposition. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) said the following:

Statehood would provide another lightning rod for Republicans, who deride the idea as an unconstitutional power grab intended to entrench Democrats with the virtually certain election of two Democratic senators. Adding it to the voting rights bill would only intensify Republican opposition, if that is even possible.

“Why not throw Puerto Rico in, too, and pack the Supreme Court while you are at it?” asked Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who said Republicans had dug in against the bill. “We are ready.”

Yes, why not? It’s not as if Republican tactics will change either way. They will do everything they can to stop it regardless.

Democrats will likely have only one shot at this apple before needing to move on to other legislative priorities. They might as well do it all at once.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.