District of Columbia Receives Representation in Presidential Elections Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The residents of the District of Columbia, which is not a state, lacked the power to vote in national elections. The Twenty-third Amendment gave them the right to vote in elections for president and vice president, although they still lacked representation in the Senate or voting representation in the House of Representatives.

Summary of Event

In the eighteenth century, the American colonies did not have a permanent capital. During the Revolutionary War (1775-1781), all joint meetings were held in Philadelphia, the largest city in the colonies. Following the end of the war and the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, New York City served as the capital of the newly independent country. District of Columbia Twenty-third Amendment[Twentythird Amendment] Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-third Amendment[Twentythird Amendment] Presidential elections, U.S.;District of Columbia [kw]District of Columbia Receives Representation in Presidential Elections (Mar. 29, 1961) [kw]Representation in Presidential Elections, District of Columbia Receives (Mar. 29, 1961) [kw]Presidential Elections, District of Columbia Receives Representation in (Mar. 29, 1961) [kw]Elections, District of Columbia Receives Representation in Presidential (Mar. 29, 1961) District of Columbia Twenty-third Amendment[Twentythird Amendment] Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-third Amendment[Twentythird Amendment] Presidential elections, U.S.;District of Columbia [g]North America;Mar. 29, 1961: District of Columbia Receives Representation in Presidential Elections[06880] [g]United States;Mar. 29, 1961: District of Columbia Receives Representation in Presidential Elections[06880] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 29, 1961: District of Columbia Receives Representation in Presidential Elections[06880] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 29, 1961: District of Columbia Receives Representation in Presidential Elections[06880] Celler, Emanuel Holland, Spessard L. Keating, Kenneth B. Kefauver, Estes

The establishment of the District of Columbia was the result of a compromise between Federalists and Antifederalists at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Alexander Hamilton Hamilton, Alexander , a Federalist, suggested increasing the power of the federal government in exchange for moving the capital from New York City to Philadelphia for ten years. At the end of the ten years, the capital would be permanently located in a more central location on the Potomac River. The U.S. Constitution provided for a seat of government that would be at most ten square miles in area to be created by the cession of lands by one or more states. It specified that Congress would have exclusive legislative power over this area. In 1790, Virginia and Maryland gave land bordering the Potomac River to the federal government. Two years later, a ten-square-mile site within this land was chosen for the District of Columbia. The main city in the District was named Washington in 1800, after the death of George Washington.

In 1802, Congress gave the city of Washington a charter. Under the charter, the president appointed the mayor, while the city council was elected by the citizens of the district. Residents achieved more local control in the early 1820’s, when they were given the right to select their own mayor, but this increase in power was short-lived. In 1847, the area south of the Potomac River was returned to Virginia. Eventually, the city grew to encompass the entire district. However, because the district was envisioned as a center of government rather than of population, there were no provisions in the Constitution for residents of the District of Columbia to participate in elections, either locally or nationally.

By the early 1870’s, the district was treated like a territory. It had a two-house legislature, with the lower house being elected by the people and the upper house being appointed by the president. In addition, the president appointed a governor and a board of public works.

In 1874, Congress once again became the law-making body for the District of Columbia. In 1878, Congress passed the Organic Act Organic Act (1878) , which placed the executive power for the District of Columbia in the hands of the three-member Board of Commissioners. This board reported to Congress, which had final say on the policies governing the District of Columbia. This arrangement remained in place until the 1960’s. By the early 1960’s, residents of the District of Columbia could only elect school board members and send delegates to national party conventions.

In 1960, the District of Columbia had a population of approximately 750,000, more than that of thirteen of the states. However, residents still had no votes in national elections or representation in Congress. The amendment that modified this situation was linked to both the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. In 1959, Democratic senator Estes Kefauver introduced an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that provided for the emergency staffing of Congress in case of a nuclear war. Kefauver’s proposal gave state governors the power to fill mass vacancies in Congress until elections could be held. Two additional provisions to Kefauver’s proposals were added on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Democratic senator Spessard L. Holland proposed a provision to abolish the poll tax, while Republican senator Kenneth B. Keating introduced a proposal to grant the residents of the District of Columbia the right to representation in both the electoral college and the House of Representatives. The U.S. Senate approved the three-part amendment 70 to 18, with a provision that any one of the three parts could be independently ratified.

When the House Committee on the Judiciary House Committee on the Judiciary considered the amendment, Chairman Emanuel Celler (a Democrat) recognized that the three-part proposal would not pass the full House. Celler decided the different sections of the amendment needed to be considered separately. He proposed that the House consider first an amendment granting the District of Columbia the right to presidential electoral delegates. In order to decrease opposition to the proposed amendment, Celler dropped the proposal for the District of Columbia to also receive representation in Congress. He added a provision stipulating that the district would receive no more electoral votes than the least populous states.

On June 14, 1960, the House approved the revised amendment by a voice vote. Two days later, on June 16, 1960, the U.S. Senate approved it as well. Within a week, Hawaii became the first state to ratify the proposed amendment. In August, Massachusetts ratified it. On March 29, 1961, the thirty-eighth state ratified the amendment, and it became part of the U.S. Constitution as the Twenty-third Amendment. Of significance is the fact that none of the states of the old Confederacy ratified the amendment. In fact, only the Arkansas legislature considered it and defeated it. The other Southern state legislatures never voted on it at all. Opposition to the amendment in the South was a result of states’ rights considerations: The Southern states saw the granting of a presidential vote to non-state residents as reducing the powers of the states. They were also influenced by the fact that Washington, D.C., had a majority African American population.

Significance

When the District of Columbia was created, the prevailing sentiment was that the residents of the district should be denied a political voice in order to keep the federal government free of local pressure. This attitude, however, changed over time, and there were numerous attempts to enfranchise the citizens of the District of Columbia. In fact, since 1818 there have been almost 150 proposals designed to give District of Columbia residents congressional representation.

While the passage of the Twenty-third Amendment was the first successful effort to give District of Columbia residents the basic right to vote in national elections, their rights were still more limited than were those of residents of the fifty states. District of Columbia residents still lacked representation in Congress and still lacked home rule. In 1970, Congress granted the District of Columbia a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. In 1978, a new constitutional amendment was proposed that was designed to replace the Twenty-third Amendment. It would have given the District of Columbia representation in both the House and the Senate. The House approved the proposed amendment by a vote of 289 to 127, and the Senate approved it by a vote of 67 to 32, barely achieving the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments. However, only sixteen states approved the amendment within the seven years before it expired.

District of Columbia residents have been more successful in their efforts to achieve home rule and local voting rights. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an executive order that replaced the Board of Commissioners with a presidentially appointed mayor and city council. Then, in 1973, Congress passed limited home-rule legislation that allowed the residents of the District of Columbia to elect their mayor and city council. They still lack legislative representation at the national level, however, despite the fact that Congress technically retains ultimate legislative authority over them. District of Columbia Twenty-third Amendment[Twentythird Amendment] Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-third Amendment[Twentythird Amendment] Presidential elections, U.S.;District of Columbia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kyvig, David E. Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996. Discusses all the amendments to the United States Constitution through 1995. Includes detailed historical information and analysis about the issues surrounding each amendment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palmer, Kris E. Constitutional Amendments, 1789 to the Present. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2000. Includes separate chapters on each of the twenty-seven constitutional amendments ratified, as well as a chapter on proposed constitutional amendments. Each chapter thoroughly discusses the historical context leading up to the passage of the amendments as well as their impact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pendergast, Tom, Sara Pendergast, and John Sousanis. Constitutional Amendments from Freedom of Speech to Flag Burning. Vol. 3. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2001. An easy-to-read work with a thorough discussion of constitutional amendments and proposals. Volume 3 examines amendments eighteen through twenty-six, as well as proposed amendments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vile, John R. Encyclopedia of Constitutional Amendments: Proposed Constitutional Amendments and Amending Issues, 1789-2002. 2d ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2003. Detailed review and analysis of the twenty-seven constitutional amendments. Includes a discussion of the thousands of other constitutional amendment proposals. More than five hundred entries.

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