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The U.S. Constitution's Twenty-Third Amendment

When the Constitution was ratified in its original form in 1788, New York City was the nation’s capital. But the so-called “District Clause” in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution made provision for a purpose-built new capital, which was to be under the exclusive authority of Congress. Washington, D.C. became the nation’s capital and the seat of the federal government on December 1, 1800 — on land ceded by Virginia and Maryland.

William Henry Harrison, the short-lived ninth President who died on April 4, 1841, just one month into his term of office, championed the cause of the inhabitants of the nation’s capital in his long inaugural address. He described them as being “deprived of many important political privileges,” adding, “The people of the District of Columbia are not the subjects of the people of the States, but free American citizens.”

By 1960, when the District of Columbia had a bigger population than 13 of the 50 states, Congress proposed the Twenty-Third Amendment giving the District of Columbia three electoral votes in presidential elections – the same number as the smallest states, whose entitlement is calculated by adding their two senators to their single representative in the House. The amendment was ratified in 1961 and was first applied in the 1964 presidential election.

In regard to presidential elections, therefore, the District is now treated as if it were a state. It is important to realize, however, that the amendment does not make the District a state.

The District has no representation in the U.S. Senate, but since 1971 it has sent a delegate to the House of Representatives. Until 1993, the delegate from the District, in common with the delegates from the U.S. territories, didn’t have voting rights.

That changed in 1993, but voting rights (except in committees) were lost again two years later after the Republicans gained control of the House. In 2007, the House gave the D.C. delegate the right to vote in the Committee of the Whole, which considers amendments – subject to the proviso that if the delegate’s vote tips the balance, the vote is taken again without the delegate’s participation.

Proposed amendments to make the District a state (possibly under the title of “New Columbia,” which makes it sound like an encyclopedia), or at least to give it proper representation in Congress, have all failed. Any such amendment would have the effect of repealing the “District Clause” in Article I of the Constitution, which places Washington, D.C. under congressional authority. The real reason for opposition to congressional representation for D.C. is political – because the District is solidly Democratic.

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