Kate Masur: Capital Injustice

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Kate Masur, an assistant professor of history at Northwestern, is the author of “An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.”]

On March 29, 1961, the states completed ratification of the 23rd Amendment, which gave residents of the District of Columbia the right to vote in presidential elections. The anniversary is worth remembering, both because the amendment was an important step toward full political equality for citizens of the nation’s capital and because it was frustratingly incomplete.

A half-century later, the District of Columbia’s population, estimated in the new census at 601,723, is larger than Wyoming’s and only slightly smaller than Vermont’s. Yet Washingtonians still have no meaningful voice in Congress and lack full authority over their own affairs.

Washington is an undemocratic anomaly, despite the grand ideals of equal rights carved into the city’s stone monuments. Its second-class citizenship is a legacy of racial injustice and, more recently, partisanship in Congress.

To preserve the capital’s independence from politics in the states, the nation’s founders provided in the Constitution for a federal district over which Congress would “exercise exclusive legislation.” Nonetheless, Congress soon chartered a city government. By 1848, all of the capital’s white male residents were entitled to vote for a mayor and city council....

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