On March 29, 1961, Ohio and Kansas voted to ratify the Constitution’s 23rd Amendment. Today, that amendment remains obscure and still controversial to a small, but critical, group of Americans.
The 23rd Amendment allows the residents of the District of Columbia to vote in presidential elections, but only with the fewest possible amount of electoral votes. And perhaps more importantly, it didn’t grant District residents representation in Congress, which is still a sore point today.
The amendment doesn’t get a lot of discussion outside of the District and not a lot of attention in general. For example, since the National Constitution Center launched its Interactive Constitution in September 2015, the 23rd Amendment has been the least viewed of 35 sections in our web constitution, lagging behind the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators) and the 24th Amendment (the poll tax).
The Constitution in Article 1, Section 8, gave Congress the power to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”
The federal District became a reality when Congress moved there from Philadelphia in 1800, but it never had the full-fledged rights that belonged to a state. The Organic Act of 1801 put the District fully under federal control.
In the 1950s, there were movements within the District for its residents to gain three sets of political and constitutional rights that had been denied by the Founders: the right to total Home Rule without congressional approvals, the right to representatives in the House and Senate, and the rights to representation in presidential elections.
By 1960, the desire for District residents to vote in presidential elections was the least-controversial of the three desired rights. The numbers of Democrats and Republicans within the District were nearly balanced and the proposed constitutional amendment had strong support outside of the South. In 1960, about 54 percent of the District’s population was black; Tennessee was the only Southern state to approve ratification at the time.
The 23rd Amendment reads as follows and granted the District of Columbia three Electoral Votes:
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.
The 23rd Amendment went into effect for the 1964 presidential election and since then, it has always voted for Democratic presidential candidates. The District does have a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, and since 1973 it gained limited Home Rule under the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act.
For the District of Columbia and its residents to gain full constitutional rights similar to the states, it would need to push for full statehood today. And given that the District could potentially add two Democratic members to the Senate, and one to the House, as a state, political observers see that as an unlikely possibility.