D.C. VOTERS next month are likely to approve — probably by an overwhelming margin — a ballot initiative calling for statehood for the District. It is equally likely that the District will not become the 51st state any time soon. But the referendum is not wasted effort. It has generated attention and energy around the need to address the inequitable treatment of people who make the nation’s capital their home. That’s hopefully a message that will be taken to heart by the incoming president and Congress.
Advisory Referendum B on the Nov. 8 ballot asks voters whether the D.C. Council should directly petition Congress for statehood admission. The four-part question also sets boundaries for the hoped-for new State of Washington D.C. and approval of a constitution. The idea for the referendum was unveiled in April (timed to the District’s celebration of Emancipation Day) by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who argued that the District’s 672,000 residents needed to be ready to make a push for statehood when a new president and Congress are seated. Rather than seeking ratification for statehood from the existing states, the plan seeks to follow the process used to admit Tennessee as the 16th state. Because it was a federal territory (much like the District), Congress allowed its admission as a state through direct petition to Congress after a vote of residents.
Ms. Bowser is hoping Democrats will control not only the White House but also both chambers of Congress, creating a more favorable political environment for D.C. rights. But even a Democratic sweep would not guarantee statehood. Democrats have proven to be just as fickle to D.C. interests as Republicans. President Obama bargained away the city’s authority to use local monies to fund abortions for low-income women, and his leadership for voting rights has been tepid. Democratic representatives from Maryland and Virginia are wary of any change that might end up with their constituents having to pay a commuter tax.
But there are steps short of statehood that would at least begin to remedy the injustice of today’s situation, in which District residents pay federal taxes and serve in the U.S. military but have no say in their government. The most obvious would be allowing the District’s representative in Congress to vote. An overwhelming vote for statehood might give a push to such a move.