There Once Was a Republican Fight for D.C. StatehoodHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, DC Statehood
When residents of Washington, D.C., got the chance to vote in the 1956 presidential primaries, their first opportunities to vote since Reconstruction, it was at the behest of a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who phrased his support in conservative terms: “In the District of Columbia the time is long overdue for granting national suffrage to its citizens and also applying the principle of local self-government to the Nation’s Capital.” When the district gained electoral votes under the Twenty-Third Amendment in 1961, the charge was led by Senator Kenneth Keating, a New York Republican. In 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon signed legislation giving the district a nonvoting delegate in the House. And when another amendment sought to give D.C. full congressional representation in 1978, the Republican Edward Brooke, of Massachusetts, introduced the measure in the Senate.
This largely forgotten history is surprising today, when the GOP is dead set against statehood for the district—something many Democrats portray as an almost-existential necessity. But representation for Washington was once a matter of bipartisan agreement, and as recently as 15 years ago, Mike Pence was in favor of it. The Republican path from support to furious opposition is a microcosm of the GOP’s broader shift toward a much more restrictive approach to voting rights. This is partly a story about realignments within the two major parties, but it is also a story about the entrenchment of winner-takes-all politics.
“The issue of representation for the people of D.C. has not changed at all,” says Perry O’Brien, the organizing director of Common Defense and a member of the Defend American Democracy coalition, who has compiled a history of past GOP support for various proposals on the issue. “What has changed is if the Republican Party was ever seriously concerned about preserving our basic democratic institutions, they clearly are not any longer.”
At one time, though, the GOP clearly was concerned. From 1956 to 1976, both the Democratic and Republican platforms called for congressional representation for D.C., according to the historian George Derek Musgrove, with the exception of the 1964 GOP platform. The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment had bipartisan support when it passed Congress in 1978. Among its backers was Senator Strom Thurmond, the notoriously racist Dixiecrat turned Republican from South Carolina, whose support helped sway other GOP votes.
“It is just not fair that in the year 1978, more than 700,000 American citizens do not have the right to elect representatives to Congress,” Thurmond said. “No one in 1790, when the District was created, could have imagined the rapid growth and changes that were to take place in the District of Columbia.”
Barry Goldwater, the very conservative though sometimes idiosyncratic senator from Arizona, agreed. “The right to vote in federal elections is a right that flows directly from the Constitution to each citizen of the United States. This right is one belonging to national citizenship and it arises out of the very nature and existence of the nation itself,” he said during Senate debate. “It is the right thing to do.”
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