This is the sixth and final installment of a series about unratified constitutional amendments. Today we’re looking at an amendment intended to give full voting rights to the citizens of the nation’s capital.
For most of its history, the residents of Washington, DC, have lacked representation in Congress and the ability to participate in elections for President. The situation was partially rectified in 1961 with the 23rd Amendment, which gave the District’s residents the right to participate in the Electoral College. However, the allocation of votes was not based on DC’s population but was instead limited to the same number of electoral votes as the least populous state. The amendment also did not address the issues of DC home rule, nor did it extend representation in Congress.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson changed the District government’s form to a mayor and city council appointed by the President. Three years later, Congress gave DC a nonvoting Delegate to the House of Representatives. Congress made further steps to address the disenfranchisement of DC residents in 1973 with the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, which established an elected mayor and an elected 13-member council for the District, although Congress retained ultimate authority over DC’s laws.
At the federal level, in 1977 Representative Don Edwards of California, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, introduced H.J. Res. 554 proposing the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment.
The amendment would have given the District of Columbia full representation in Congress, full representation in the Electoral College, and full participation in the constitutional amending process.
The House Judiciary Committee incorporated a seven-year ratification deadline directly in the body of the resolution rather than in the preamble so Congress could not extend the deadline for ratification by a simple majority vote. The full proposed amendment read:
Section 1. For purposes of representation in the Congress, election of the President and Vice President, and article V of this Constitution, the District constituting the seat of government of the United States shall be treated as though it were a State.
Section 2. The exercise of the rights and powers conferred under this article shall be by the people of the District constituting the seat of government, and as shall be provided by the Congress.
Section 3. The twenty-third article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 4. This article shall be inoperative, unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.
The House passed the proposed amendment on March 2, 1978, by a vote of 289 to 127, 11 votes more than the two-thirds constitutional requirement. The Senate passed the proposed amendment on August 22 by a vote of 67 to 32, one vote more than the requirement. The amendment then went to the states for ratification, but when the seven years came to an end in 1985, only 16 states had approved the amendment, 22 states short of the three-fourths needed.
Because the amendment failed, citizens of the District continue to lack representation in Congress, the ability to participate in the constitutional amending process, and full rights in the Electoral College. Beginning in 2000, the District’s license plate began to feature the slogan “Taxation Without Representation,” referring to that fact the District’s residents must pay federal income tax but lack full voting rights.