On Monday, February 25, CNN held a town hall for recently announced presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in which he answered questions from audience members about everything from reports of sexual harassment during his 2016 campaign to why he supports Democratic Socialism. One topic that came up, much to the surprise of some viewers: D.C. statehood.
The movement to make the District of Columbia the 51st state has come and gone almost since the founding of the country, but in recent years the movement has grown and one audience member asked Sanders what he thinks about the idea. Sanders said he’d support making the District of Columbia the 51st state, which was met with cheers. But what exactly does that mean? What is the D.C. statehood movement, and who supports it? Allow us to break it down.
If it’s not a state… what is the District of Columbia?
Washington, D.C. officially became the nation’s capital in 1790, after brief forays in Philadelphia, New York City (where George Washington was inaugurated in 1789), and small towns like York, Pennsylvania and Annapolis, Maryland. The District was established by the Constitution, using land ceded by Virginia and Maryland.
D.C. is, technically speaking, a federal district — a municipality that is under the direct control of the federal government.
Why do people want D.C. to become a state?
At the time the District was formed in 1790, it had a population of approximately 3,000 people. Compared to the approximately 33,000 residents of New York City and 28,000 people in Philadelphia at the time, it was a veritable backwater. But times have changed. Today, the population of Washington, D.C. stands at about 700,000 people. That’s more than the population of Wyoming — which has fewer than 600,000 residents represented by two Senators and a House Rep.
Because D.C. is a federal district, it has zero voting representation in Congress. That means that 700,000 people have zero Senators and one non-voting member of the House of Representatives. They don’t really have a say in the goings-on of Congress at all. In other words: residents of D.C. live in a representative democracy (where people vote to send reps to the capital to vote on their behalf) without any representation themselves. And, as they are under federal jurisdiction, Congress reviews local laws and can nullify any laws that they don’t like.
Additionally, residents pay local, income, sales, and property taxes, which means they’re being taxed without representation. Taxation without representation is exactly the reason those who started the Revolutionary War gave for breaking from England. (To add irony to the situation, license plates in D.C. all sport the motto, “Taxation without representation.”)
In short, people involved in the D.C. statehood movement want the city to be a state so they can have a say in decision-making by their government. Seems reasonable, right?