A ballot referendum to split the nation’s capital into a new state for its residents and a smaller, federal district for government buildings and monuments is headed to D.C. voters in November.
The D.C. Council unanimously approved the referendum proposed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Tuesday, saying that, if approved, it could help pressure Congress to hold the first vote in more than two decades to allow D.C. residents to form the 51st state.
In backing the plan, however, the council brushed aside criticism from statehood advocates who felt that D.C. residents should have more say in drafting a constitution for the would-be state. A final vote on the founding document, which voters would be asked to “approve,” would not be taken by the D.C. Council until after the November election.
Council members said it was more important to move quickly than to wait until a final version of the constitution was ready for public review.
“We’ve got a real chance, this is our moment, let’s take it,” said Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). “We’ve talked about this before, and the feedback we’d get is that ‘you’re not ready, get your act together.’ Well, the fact is we have pulled our act together . . . and D.C. has never been more ready to be a state.”
For most of the nation’s history, statehood for the District was a radical idea to remedy lack of voting representation in Congress.
But recent actions by congressional Republicans to block decisions of D.C. voters to legalize marijuana, restrict gun use and fund abortions, among other matters,have pumped new energy into the statehood cause among the District’s mostly Democratic electorate.
According to a Washington Post poll conducted late last year, a record level of D.C. residents support statehood. More than 7 in 10 residents say Congress has too much control over the internal affairs of the nation’s capital, and nearly as many say they are upset or very upset by the situation and would support statehood.
At a news conference following the vote, Bowser said she was “overjoyed” and said she would campaign for a “big” margin of support for statehood from D.C. voters.
“We want to make sure that the residents of the District of Columbia are treated like every other American, and that is with statehood and full representation,” she said.
Bowser’s goal is to ready a petition for statehood by January, in case Democrats who support the idea win control of the White House and Congress.
Congress and the president could, in theory, approve statehood for the District with an up or down vote and the signature of the president, much the way they did for Tennessee more than two centuries ago. Like the District, Tennessee was a federal territory at the time and Congress required voters there to approve just four questions.
The November ballot measure would mimic the “Tennessee Plan” by asking D.C. voters: a) whether the District should become a state; b) whether voters approve of a constitution (“to be adopted by the council”); c) to approve of proposed boundaries for the state; and d) whether they pledge to support an elected representative form of government.
Ann Loikow, a longtime organizer with the advocacy group DC Statehood Yes We Can, said she would not support the constitution component.
“I’m not going to support it, because I don’t know what I’ll be voting for,” she said. “This whole process is a sham. . . . They’re not offering us democracy — they’re offering us autocracy, and they’re the autocrats that are going to keep running it.”
Loikow and other critics say the proposed state should have a larger legislature than Bowser has proposed — 21 members. They also want the District to think more innovatively about how to form the first entirely urban state and give voters a bigger say in a modern bill of rights.
Congress voted on the question of statehood for D.C. once before, in 1993. It lost in the House on a vote of 277 to 153, with nearly every Republican and more than 100 Democrats opposed. The measure never got a vote in the Senate.
Democrats last week voted to include statehood in their national party platform for the first time since 2000, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supports the idea and has vowed to be a vocal advocate.
Asked what else she wants from Democrats on the national stage, Bowser said: “Our demand is that we’re going to put it on the president’s desk, and that she will push hard for it.”