Twenty-Third Amendment: Let DC Vote!

The Passage

In 1800, the District of Columbia became the nation’s capital. The town originally had a small population of 5,000, and these residents did not have a local government or the right to vote in federal elections because the District was a federal territory, not a state. By 1960, the population of the District was 760,000 and the residents had all the responsibilities of citizenship, including paying federal taxes, but they did not have the same voting rights as states, even those with lower populations.

In the 1950s,  District residents led movements to gain three sets of political rights: the right to total Home Rule without congressional approvals, the right to representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the right to representation in presidential elections. In 1960, granting District residents the right to vote in presidential elections was the least controversial of the three, and the proposed amendment had strong support, except for among Southern States. At this time, about 54% of the District’s population was African American, and it was presented amid the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Therefore, adding electors from the District of Columbia would likely push the nation toward civil rights, and not all state leaders were on board. Tennessee was the only southern state to approve ratification at the time.

The Twenty-Third Amendment permits citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote for electors in presidential elections. The Amendment was proposed by Congress on June 16, 1960 and officially ratified on March 29, 1961, making it the second most quickly ratified amendment in constitutional history. It is important to note that the Amendment did not grant the District representation in Congress. In 1978, an attempt to ratify an amendment to give the District representation in Congress failed.

Amendment Text

Section 1. The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:

A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Interpretation

The Twenty-Third Amendment allows American citizens living in the District of Columbia to vote in presidential elections. Specifically, the Amendment declared that the District would receive as many electoral college votes as the least-populated state, which is three. Basically, the Amendment treats the District of Columbia as if it were a state for purposes of the electoral college, giving residents the right to have their votes counted in presidential elections. However, the Amendment does not make the District of Columbia a state, provide representation in Congress, or change the way the District is governed.

Major Court Cases

Because of the straightforward language used, there have been no Supreme Court cases on the Twenty-Third Amendment. 

Controversies

There is not much modern controversy surrounding the Twenty-Third Amendment. However, the fact that the Twenty-Third Amendment does not grant District residents representation in Congress is a sore spot for many. Since the ratification of the Amendment, there have been several bids for District voter representation in Congress and even cries for statehood, but all have failed.

Why Care?

The Twenty-Third Amendment is significant because all citizens of the United States should have the right to vote and make their voices heard. Today, there continue to be attempts to gain statehood for the District of Columbia because without it, District residents do not have representation in Congress, despite fulfilling all the obligations of U.S. citizenship, or have control over their government.

Think Further

  1. Why do you think the Twenty-Third Amendment was ratified so quickly, despite the turmoil at the beginning of the 1960s?
  2. Do you think the Twenty-Third Amendment should be amended to give District residents representation in Congress?
  3. How is the Twenty-Third Amendment relevant to modern society?

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Learn More

  1. “The Twenty-Third Amendment.” Interpretation: The Twenty-Third Amendment | The National ConstitutionCenter, https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/amendment-xxiii/interps/155
  2. “23rd Amendment.” Annenberg Classroom. https://www.annenbergclassroom.org/23rd-amendment/
  3. Rothman, Lily. “How Washington D.C. Got the Right to Vote for the President.” Time, https://time.com/4267840/23rd-amendment/
  4. Smentkowski, Brian P. “Twenty-third Amendment.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Twenty-third-Amendment
  5. NCC Staff. “The Most Obscure Amendment?” Constitution Dailyhttps://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-most-obscure-constitutional-amendment